The Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth Part I: Origins

I am many things: Black, African, a Woman, a writer/doctor and (quite unapologetically) a nerd. The word gets thrown about A LOT. The landscape is changing, and in the process of exploring and explaining this part of my identity (albeit with lots of geeking out) I hope to convince you by the end of this that you’re a nerd too

(or the the very least that you should want be)!

I’ll backtrack for a second, offering a quick run-through of the denotation and connotation of the words “nerd” and “geek” which, much like the words themselves, are a blurry and interchangeable mess.

A search for the formal definition of either should read Error 404 not found. For one thing there’s no consensus and for another: if you have to use the word “connotates” in your definition, you’re doing it wrong. I love this definition failure because it proves my point: YOU get to decide what being a nerd/geek means and there is inherent magic in how universal that is. Do not try to put us in a box; many have tried and “that is why you fail“.

But for academic purposes I’ve lined up the most commonly recurring (though largely informal) definitions even attempting to explore the etymology of each. For control.


Nerd. n.

1. A single-minded expert in a particular field.

2. A boring and contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.

3. An individual who enjoys learning and doesn’t adhere to social norms.

Etymology: Dr Seuss. No, for real, the word made its first appearance in the 1950’s book If I Ran The Zoo.

4. Urban dictionary: if you are reading this article to determine whether or not you are a nerd, you are not. It is a label of no consequence and nerds have better things to do than play along to societal stereotypes. That being said, if you want to see what people think the word means because human thought processes, societal constructs and philosophy are interesting to you, consider yourself one.

Synonyms/related: Dork, Unattractive, bookish

Geek. n.

1. A slang term originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people.

2. One who passionately engages in one or more things to extreme levels. (This one could just as easily describe a cocaine addict so it’s not very specific as definitions go.)

Etymology: derived form the German word geck meaning “fool” or “fop”.

3. Urban dictionary: the people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult.

The Connotations are an equally confusing jumble of Steve Urkle, Middle Earth, Zoey Deschanel for some reason, dressing up (cosplay) usually for conventions, magic, extreme bookishness, software and computers, Hermione Granger, glasses, comic books and braces (this one defeats me because there are few things cooler than fixing ones teeth). It’s a mess. Somewhere in there is the truth but let me offer up a third option: mine.

I grew up with a very confusing view of “coolness”.

A) I understood that I wasn’t. inherently.

B) I understood that this meant that I shouldn’t like myself. I strongly disagreed.

C) I didn’t understand why it was uncool to like stuff that didn’t come off of the prescribed Cool Stuff manual to the exclusion of all else. The List included lip gloss, boys, premature adult nonsense like “blow occupations” or saying “vagina”, gossip, looking cute (and quite frankly bored) and a calculated casual indifference that I absolutely could never muster. It looked like a chore to define yourself by often flimsy company. To pretend to like stuff you didn’t and vice versa. And it looked lonely to be surrounded by a crowd for the sake of it.

My 3rd BFF was a Cool Girl (The Cool Girl) who found herself without friends when the girl gang she’d single-handedly elevated to this status staged a coup because knight takes rook. Or something. I don’t know I wasn’t paying attention to Cool politics (I vaguely remember someone’s crush liked her butt or something).

D) As I’ve mentioned, it was also clear that there were things you absolutely weren’t allowed to like. From 2000 to about 2007 (the late 90s really) that meant: books, doing well in school and getting dressed for the sole purpose of staving off nudity, not liking the things in C and being excited in general. All things I was exceptionally good at, having been born both precocious and exceedingly talkative (if you’re reading this and nodding about the talkative part, all I can say is that I was much improved by the time we met trust me) and having accidentally fallen in love with words and thus books. I also happened to love learning new things and school was a unique combination of learning and literal new books I would otherwise never have known about. I even learned to look appropriately ashamed for my marks masking (uncharacteristically quiet) excitement. These were the rules. I could never be Cool but I could get by by sticking to them.

I did slip up though. Repeatedly. I thought that I could convince people to like the things that I thought were cool because they’re so freaking amazing it makes no sense not to like them and your not liking them must surely stem from an ignorance of all that you’re missing out on. I’m still like that.

Being the first born I had no influencers or tastemakers my own age showing me cool things or books so I stumbled upon most things, having to rely on my opinion of them to decipher if they were cool or not. I watched a movie about a boy wizard and couldn’t stop talking my mom (or anyone else who would listen)’s ears off about it. A family member asked me if I’d read the books about said boy wizard and it was game. over.

The next thing I know I’ve forced my long-suffering mom to get me a library card having devoured every book in the house at least 20 times. I begged for books we couldn’t afford and she compromised by lugging me back and forth every other weekend to Sandton library smack bam in the middle of what was then Sandton Square (now Nelson Mandela Square). It took me a looong time to realise people did their shopping shopping there. I wondered if it sounded cool when I described spending every other weekend in Sandton omitting the part where I was casually devouring the children’s section there and had never heard of Louis or Vutton.

I soon learned to filter the magic talk out so she (my mom) never heard about Roald Dahl and his shenanigans with giant peaches, witches, giants and such. I’d also stumbled upon Sweet Valley and was shook that there were thousands of them (I distinctly remember being a founding member of my very own Unicorn Club sans the fabulous wealth that traditionally accompanied the title). I say all of this because people are often astonished by how many classics I haven’t read or only got around to later e.g. If I had known that Katniss Everdeen existed, I would never have given Bella Swan the time of day. But it is what it is. I have no regrets.

I cringe when I think about the fan mail. I got an autographed photo from Daniel Radcliffe by Air Mail with an enclosed letter updating me about what was happening on set. I bumped into Ole, at the time both senior and very “cool” (arguably the coolest boy in school though being a grade 5 and all, this didn’t really amount to much in my book. I stupidly showed him my (signed) letter. Proudly. He spent 10 minutes trying to convince me it was fake and that my mom had done it. He clearly didn’t know my mom (she neither knew nor cared enough about the fictional wizarding world to even attempt such a fallacy). As proof I showed him the photo. And it was only after he’d called all his friend over to look, having feigned genuine interest was I wise to my mistake. It took so long to realise that I was being made fun of for this.

I’m sure you can see some trends namely that I didn’t go looking for the nerd life, the nerd life found me and I was starting to make the fatal mistake of assuming nerdy enthusiasm was the absolute antithesis of cool. Which we all know isn’t true. Enter second part of my nerdy truth: community.

I found that what my friends couldn’t stomach, others could. Happily. I formed entire frienships with people I had no business knowing, through the sheer force of talking about the things I loved with the (unlikely) people who loved them too: The annoying and snobbish Afrikaans girl 2 grades ahead of me who would wander into my room for 3 hour chats anytime TRL or People magazine published behind the scenes set footage of the next Harry Potter movie. The standoffish senior girl with piercings whose Walkman I got to share on the (relatively incognito for her) bus rides to and from school every weekend because we both absolutely adored artists that we shouldn’t and waxed lyrical about 2 hours a week. The “weird boy” who (allegedly) ate glass who introduced me to Dan Brown and the little boy who shared my love for Eminem in the supper line.

I had developed a network of book readers around me, negotiating night-time book exchanges whenever a new book came out. When the library was too slow and the wait for my Saturday reading trips to Exclusive Books was too unbearable (I still measure the length of a Harry Potter book by how many Saturdays it took to complete it) I loaned books from grade 4s and grade 7s alike. I read by bathroom light: the only lights that remained on after lights out. I was protected from the prefects paroles by the privacy granted to doing your business (I mean, who’s going to knock on my stall asking when I’m going to be done?) though some grew wise to my tactics and I befriended them too.

Becoming a prefect in primary school came with the additional perk of general bathroom use; I was free from the stalls. I remember crying alone in the small hours seated on cold cement bathtub and swatting at moths when Dumbledore died. I took this bathroom hack with me to high-school, borrowing books and giving them back to their startled owners every morning. Every other Saturday, some staff at Exclusive Books started asking me about the latest books, knowing what I was there to do every week and turning a (mercifully) blind eye.

I stayed up late every Sunday night talking to a girl from another ‘crew’ (we weren’t friends during the day basically) about Passions which I watched religiously every Friday evening; my family having dutifully taped every episode during the week (I was in boarding school BTW if it hasn’t become clear). This ritual was so ingrained and pure that my first experience of porn was completely accidental. I’d paused the video to pee/make coffee a bit later than usual during those late night Passions (the soap opera) marathons and suddenly Etv was showing me flames. Needless to say, after hours of talking and me reenacting Charity’s annoying “what’s wrong Miguel?”, we bonded over other stuff (Ludacris, for one).

I accidentally got my friend Kgotso into Supernatural (and Game of Thrones for that matter) because I was gushing about it one night. My high school “bestie” would ask me to tell her about any book I was reading at night before we went to bed. I think she’d grown accustomed to the sound of my voice as she drifted off but I like to think she listened. Thereafter I’d sneak into the bathroom to read some more. This is how I learned about the power of intense enthusiasm and the community it brought my way. I couldn’t get over how cool that combination was and that’s what being a nerd means to me.

In caring about things deeply, intricately (often loudly) and unapologetically I’ve learned that the things you love light you up. If you allow that light to burn brightly, it attracts kindred spirits to you like moths to a flame. If you aren’t letting something set you on fire, I highly recommend it.

(If I still haven’t convinced you that you too are or should be a nerd, there’s still next week when I take this thing international).

Next: Part II From Greek to Geek

5 thoughts on “The Nerds Shall Inherit the Earth Part I: Origins

  1. I will always remember Asif Gani, my first crush and the boy who introduced me to Goosebumps and Harry Potter. There was no greater betrayal than when he graduated to being considered a ‘cool kid’. Actually, he was always a cool kid. Must have had something to do with the fact that he would actually he would actually play with the other kids in the park instead of reading on the swing.
    Also, can you resurrect the Unicorn Club.

    Liked by 1 person

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