March 7, 2013

Delving deeply into the question whether the Chinese have a word for "nerd."

You remember the discussion after NYT columnist David Brooks asserted that the Chinese don't have a word for "nerd." Victor Mair at Language Log has a lot to say on the subject:
First of all, we have to know what "nerd" itself means.  It doesn't just signify a bookish or pedantic person, but rather someone who is socially inept or square (try finding an exactly equivalent word for that in Chinese!), perhaps, but not necessarily, because of a consuming commitment to intellectual or technical pursuits....

I asked about thirty native speakers of various Sinitic languages and topolects how they would say "nerd" in Chinese.  Around half of them flat out said that you cannot say "nerd" in Chinese, but must borrow the English word.  Roughly another quarter mentioned shūdāizi ("bookworm"), or variants thereof, while another quarter listed all sorts of colorful terms meaning — more or less — "fool; blockhead; dolt; dunce; dullard; simpleton; numskull"; etc.), none of which are really comparable to "nerd".  I'll just list a few of the more interesting Chinese terms of the latter sort...
Much more at the link, including the awareness among native Chinese speakers of the nerd/geek distinction (and familiarity with this Venn diagram).

IN THE COMMENTS: Earnest Prole said:
For a subtler definition of nerd see this Venn diagram

35 comments:

Emmster said...

To give credit where credit is due, the Venn diagram is from xkcd: http://xkcd.com/747/. A great website for nerds and geeks alike!

Tibore said...

So, is it pretty nerdy to obsess over the distinction between the two? Or is it pretty geeky?

;)

Tibore said...

Oh, and just as a sidebar: According to the OKCupid test, apparently I'm a "Modern, Cool Nerd (57% Nerd, 57% Geek, 43% Dork)".

Not that they're any authority, but I tripped over their "test" and thought it'd be a funny thing to take. Trying to figure out how my Nerd/Geek/Dork total comes out to 157%, but hey, some things in life are just mysteries to me...

Earnest Prole said...

For a subtler definition of nerd see this Venn diagram.

bagoh20 said...

There are things worse than being a nerd. I'm some kind of freaky semi-nerd. Non-nerds consider me a nerd, but nerds would never call me their own. It's very lonely here on the edge of the Venn.

Astro said...

At one time there were about 30 million non-nerd Chinese people. They were eliminated during the Cultural Revolution, so all that remains in China now are nerds. Hence, no need for a special word.

Zach said...

Is "nerd" even pejorative any more? I ask, because many of my friends could be called nerds without taking offense.

My own definition: a nerd is someone who's overly interested in a particular subject. It's an intellectual thing: you could be a music nerd or a law nerd or a painting nerd.

A geek is someone who personally identifies with a brand or a group. There are many sports geeks who obsessively follow certain teams, comic book geeks, TV show geeks, etc. There are many political geeks who are overly invested in fights between the Democrats and Republicans, or whether Obama is winning or losing. I say winning or losing, because it isn't about doing well or poorly, it's about personal identification.

Nerds are producers, geeks are consumers.

Astro said...

I remember first hearing the word 'nerd' used in the TV show 'Happy Days'. The person so described, Potsie, was a rather un-intelligent and very naive guy.

I always wondered how 'nerd' became associated with 'highly intelligent'.

Lem said...

Soo.. its safe to say the its not safe to say the Chinese don't have a concept for something... even if they don't have the same word as we do?

No definite answer one way or the other... means Brooks was half right... half right is good enough for me... meaning I was right when I said he was right.

X said...

I thought the Chinese word for nerd was "Chinese".


and according to Phil Robertson, most of today's youth are nerds.

edutcher said...

Didn't one of the commenters here once call Ann "kind of nerdy"?

Zach said...

Is "nerd" even pejorative any more? I ask, because many of my friends could be called nerds without taking offense.

Of course, this is still the Country of the Big Shoulders where physical labor is still sexy (read some of VDH's columns), so nerd is still a shot.

Programmers, the ultimate nerds, are characterized by Dilbert.

And nobody cares how much money Bill Gates makes, they'd still rather do what the QB of the Packers does for a living.

JAL said...

Do they have a word for Asperger's?

rhhardin said...

There's no word for bullshit in English.

tim maguire said...

I loved the original gawker comments--a bunch of people typing "nerd" into their google english-chinese translator and crying victory because they got a result. Then an actual chinese speaker shows up and says Brooks is right, and maybe they shouldn't rely on a translation software. And that settled the discussion.

No, just kidding, the chinese speaker was mostly ignored as people continued to crow about their google results.

traditionalguy said...

The answer is in The Big Bang Theory's characters. All except Penny are Nerds squared.

In my day the Athletes called the thin guys wearing glasses who got all A's nerds.

There were some exceptions that liked learning and could do both after contact lenses and York Barbells came into use, but they made a B once or twice so the valedictorian was the head nerd.

St. George said...

It's all wabi-sabi to me.

Un-ask.

Sorun said...

I suddenly have a hankering to see Revenge of The Nerds again.

William said...

The mandarin class existed for hundreds of years. As I understand it, the essential qualification of being a mandarin was the ability to do well on competitive exams. My guess is that the world's first and largest population of nerds was in China. Ironic. It's like Eskimos didn't have a word for that cold, wet shit that litters our streets in the winter.

Paddy O said...

Anyone else watching Nerd Wars?

Nomennovum said...

I asked about thirty native speakers of various Sinitic languages and topolects how they would say "nerd" in Chinese. Around half of them flat out said that you cannot say "nerd" in Chinese, but must borrow the English word. Roughly another quarter mentioned shūdāizi ("bookworm"), or variants thereof, while another quarter listed all sorts of colorful terms meaning — more or less — "fool; blockhead; dolt; dunce; dullard; simpleton; numskull"; etc.), none of which are really comparable to "nerd".

OK, but that doesn't mean the nerd from the NY Times was right. K?

DADvocate said...

There's no Chinese word for nerd because they're all nerds. Just say the Chinese version of "guy," "friend" or "fella" to another Chinese and you're saying nerd.

Balfegor said...

I don't know Chinese, so maybe it really is different there, but I think the effort to find a translation for nerd is too focused on the social phenomenon of nerd-dom in the US and not enough on what Brooks was actually trying to say (as I read it) which was that there is no term of opprobrium in China for people who study too hard.

The focus on the social phenomenon (i.e. that nerds like sci fi and cartoons etc.) leads these commentators to use Otaku repeatedly as the translation for "nerd" -- and while it works in many contexts, it doesn't in this context, because there's not a strong association between being an Otaku and being good at school (well, not a strong positive association).

Anyhow, my guess is that the use of the term "nerd" is throwing the Chinese speakers off, because they're looking for something that covers the same semantic space (which probably doesn't exist), rather than focusing in on what Brooks was actually talking about. Or trying to talk about.

Balfegor said...

Sorry Otaku as the Japanese translation for nerd.

Synova said...

Yeah but...

I once had a German language instructor from Germany tell the class that English had no word for "brother and/or sister" the way that German does.

Half the class went... Um... sibling?

And then we had to explain that (and at the time I think this was far more true than it is now) sibling was mostly used, written, on forms, and not in speech.

Also, in order for a native speaker to know the term "nerd" in their language they'd have to have a completely fluent understanding of the meaning of "nerd" in English.

It's a word that native English speakers argue about the meaning of all the time. I think that it mostly means "socially awkward" because if you're a computer/technical/science wiz you're a geek, not a nerd.

Synova said...

"Brooks was actually trying to say (as I read it) which was that there is no term of opprobrium in China for people who study too hard."

Which would be "bookworm".

JackOfClubs said...

Geeks are people who are interested in things no one else is interested in; nerds are people who don't know that no one else is interested.

Chip Ahoy said...

My favorite lines in Revenge of Nerds is "It's just that I never had fish that wasn't in stick form."

And referencing the Malcolm X hat as Malcolm ten.

Chip Ahoy said...

The idea of breaded fish sticks is hilarious. And suddenly I want some. With that tartar sauce that comes with them. I haven't had that in decades.

Synova said...

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=-vj0ld8rCEs#!


Apparently Japanese has neither a word for "tire" nor a word for "sportscar."

(The video is funny... a ski-jump competition for tires...)

Astro said...

I wonder if there is a sobriquet for a person who likes Venn diagrams and who likes to diagram sentences.

Susan Stewart Rich said...

What is a nerd? Doesn't it all depend on how many sexual partners you have/had (or hypothetically could get)?

Susan Stewart Rich said...

This essay by Julian Barnes is enlightening.
http://rhulvictorian.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/julian-barnes-on-madame-bovary/

MSG said...

I first heard someone called a "nerd" in the freshman dorms in 1970. This nerd had short hair, was in ROTC and the business school, and was naively out of tune with the subculture. He was not particularly intellectual or even studious. Maybe if it were today, he would be a "dork," or in my parents' generation, a "drip." I first heard the word "geek" used figuratively in 1973. It was used to describe sadistic busywork-inflicting professors, and when the meaning was explained to me, my informant specifically compared such professors to carnival geeks, disgusting entertainers who bite off the heads of chickens. It was not until relatively recent years that I heard the word "geek" used to disparage certain kinds of students.

Jim O said...

If it's obvious why Chinese doesn't have word for nerd, then why does the Inuit language have a hundred words for snow (or so we are told)?

And why did I consciously avoid the use of the word "Eskimo" above? It think it's come to be seen as perjorative or condescending, but I don't remember why.

Jim O said...

If it's obvious why Chinese doesn't have word for nerd, then why does the Inuit language have a hundred words for snow (or so we are told)?

And why did I consciously avoid the use of the word "Eskimo" above? It think it's come to be seen as perjorative or condescending, but I don't remember why.