When I was in school, “nerd” mostly meant someone who did well in school and was really absorbed in their academics. Or it might mean someone who played Dungeons and Dragons or something like that.
While nerds might have had their own clique, they definitely weren’t part of the popular crowd.
Urbandictionary.com has these two definitions (among others):
“An individual persecuted for his superior skills or intellect, most often by people who fear and envy him.”
“An ‘individual’, i.e. a person who does not conform to society’s beliefs that all people should follow trends and do what their peers do. Often highly intelligent but socially rejected because of their obsession with a given subject, usually computers…”
While I would argue that an obsession with computers really makes someone more of a geek than a nerd, these definitions (though admittedly biased) are illustrative of my point.
“Nerd,” however, has been hijacked.
People who have read all the Harry Potter books (or even just watched all the movies) get called “nerd”s. If a fantasy series is wildly popular world wide, then liking it isn’t really nerdy. Being nerdy is something against pop culture; it is non-conformity.
So “nerd” no longer means the same thing, really. It used to mean either an intellectual, who is most likely not very socially adept, and/or a specific kind of non-conformist (ex. someone into fantasy role-playing games).
Now it means anyone into technology and/or fantasy or sci-fi. Thanks to the popularity of fantasy and video games, and the importance of technology, almost anyone can be called a “nerd” these days. Even jocks can be nerds. After all, Fantasy Football is pretty much just Dungeons and Dragons for jocks.
I used to take pride in being a nerd. I was proud of working my butt off for an A, even when the grade didn’t really matter. I enjoyed reading fantasy and sci-fi novels most of my classmates hadn’t even heard of.
Honestly, I felt rather snobbish about being a nerd. It meant that I was going places. My future held more than a job in a fast-food restaurant.
So why the change in the meaning of “nerd”? I blame movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while a staple and classic of the fantasy genre, was still relatively obscure. Three blockbuster movies changed society’s perception of the genre. Fantasy is cool now. I don’t think you can go into a movie theater that isn’t showing at least one or two fantasy or sci-fi films at any given time.
“Nerd” has been further watered down by the trend to add “nerd” at the end of anything to mean an obsession. If you’re really into the Twilight series you’re a “Twilight nerd.” Someone really into photography might be called a “camera nerd.”
The definition of nerd as a “smart person” has been pretty much sloughed off.
I think we need a new word.