The historical revenge of the nerds...
Apparently National Nerd Day (8 February), Word Nerd Day (9 January) and Geek Pride Day (25 May) are all actual things. Who knew? Well, probably the nerds. And even though the term ‘nerd’ only really came into parlance through that wacky author Dr Seuss in If I Ran A Zoo and pop culture in the 1950s, many suspect there have been nerds and geeks among us for much longer. So, how long have nerds ruled the world?
Thanks to that 1984 movie (and arguably the pinnacle of “comedy” in the 80s) Revenge of the Nerds, most people think they can spot a nerd from 20 paces. Thick glasses? Check. Pocket protector on a checked shirt? Check. Greasy hair? You know it.
But in reality, nerds are nothing new. The only way to define the cool, glamorous and socially successful among us is by having an other to compare to. And that’s always been the job of the nerd.
Step back in time
But how were your average Joe and Josephine in the ancient world meant to know what they were dealing with in the absence of prescription eye-wear and personal hygiene?
Enter: the 20-sided die.
But what has a 20-sided die got to do with ancient nerdery? Well, if you’re a Dungeons & Dragons fan you would not have asked. And for the rest of us, it is a fun fact to know that this piece of nerd armoury – dated to around 300 BC – could well be the holy grail of Nerdom. Dice based role-play games are pretty much the neon sign pointing to Nerdsville.
Could they really have been wearing imaginary invisibility cloaks while the local jocks pushed the pyramids into place? This sort of evidence of ancient nerdy-dom really only touches on the aspect of nerds that we stereotypically associate with someone who lacks social skills, might spend a little too much time indoors with the curtains drawn and who – when they’re not being annoying – is otherwise a bit boring.
So what about that other definition of nerd: the label given to someone who is a single- minded expert in a particular technical field? This is more in line with the Nerd Rulers of today (we are looking at you Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg).
Rock star nerds of old
Socrates and Plato have been called many things. But let’s now call them what they really are: the Grand Daddies of Nerdiness. These guys loved nothing more than to sit around chatting about mathematics, ethics, logic and philosophy. Yawn. Bet they never dated cheerleaders.
And what about Hippocrates? Is there anything more nerd-ifying than introducing a systemic process for studying clinical medicine and prescribing practices for physicians? Give me the chaos of medical diagnosis based on evil spirits any day. Much cooler.
Perhaps the nerd who was most out of control was Leonardo Da Vinci. It wasn’t enough that he painted the iconic works of Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, but rumour has it that when he was taking a break from painting the Sistine Chapel, he designed some structurally sound bridges. Who does that as a resting activity? Da Vinci was a painter, architect, astronomer, inventor and student of all things scientific. The thing that tips him over the nerd edge? He was a keeper of thousands of secret notebooks where he wrote down ideas for inventions, mathematical equations and observations about science and nature. Is that what the cool kids were up to in the 1400s? We fear not.
And so it goes
Of course, all of these nerds have one thing in common: they’re famous. (We’re not even counting the fact that they’re all dudes. That goes without saying.)
And that’s the thing about nerds that’s hardest to swallow: they may be socially inept, role playing pimple machines, but, gee, they get some seriously cool things done: we just need to look at the nerd crew of the last 100 years to see that.
There’s Freud, Einstein, Hawking, Sagan, Jobs and more. So nerdy, we don’t even need to use their first names. All of these pocket-protector owners proved that science and society could keep opening up new horizons; it just needed their genius and focus.
Recently, nerds have been celebrated in film and TV; think about Andrew Denton, Stephen Colbert, Harry Potter and even the Liz Lemon character from 30 Rock. But, then again, they’re more the bookish nerd type. Now that’s another story…