Nerd vs. Nebbish

Who’s the bigger loser?

You can talk about globalization, the sexual revolution, or the civil rights movement. But one of the greatest upheavals of the century is the liberation of the nerd. Many have noted the rise of the Silicon Valley programmer and the iconification of Bill Gates. Few have placed these developments in context. Nerds, once defined as squares and losers, now also lord over Washington (Newt Gingrich, Al Gore) and Hollywood (Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino).

Just as the women’s rights movement revolutionized male-female relations, so also has this movement created its own turmoil. With the advent of the power nerd, we can no longer say for certain what makes a nerd a nerd. Or, to put it another way, what now separates the nerds from the nebbishes? The time has come to reassess and redefine the loser.

Nobody–not William Safire, not the Oxford English Dictionary–has concretely pinned down the origin of the word nerd. One theory traces it to a throwaway passage in Dr. Seuss’ lesser-known 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo. Another considers it a variation of the 1940s put-down nerts to you, as in “nuts to you.” A third derives it from turd.

Whatever its origins, the appellation rose to prominence in the 1950s, the High Age of Conformity, when boomers employed it to condemn the most conformist of the conformists, the squarest of the squares. And the phrase conjured up a specific image: the greasy, pocket-protected teen in thick, horn-rimmed glasses.

Clearly, the unstylish, klutzy bookworm has existed throughout history. (Einstein is an obvious example of a nerd who predated the term.) But nerdiness became well defined only after the birth of its opposite–coolness–during the prosperous postwar era, as the middle class expanded to include vast new segments of the population. These new constituencies adopted bourgeois values, among them a fixation with fashion–what’s cool and what’s not. Nerdy was not.

But the popular understanding of nerdiness–that a nerd is an uncool person–doesn’t stand the test of time. In particular, it doesn’t survive the 1980s, an era the New York Times deemed was characterized by “nerd chic.” By the middle of the go-go decade, fashion magazines touted the popularity of nerd couture–plaid plants, horn rims, and oxford shirts buttoned all the way to the top. Further, witness the proliferation of ‘80s teen movies valorizing nerds: Revenge of the Nerds, Weird Science, and Real Genius, to name a few. Underlying this transformation of the nerd’s image was a transformation of the nerd’s economic status. With their entry into new high-tech industries, many nerds suddenly became millionerds.

Let me posit a more durable definition than the nerd-cool opposition: Nerdiness is connoisseurship gone awry. The essential characteristic of nerds is that they lack a normal understanding of style and social graces. The essential reason they get this way is that as youths they channel their mental energies into a particular area–film, computers, politics–at the expense of learning social conventions. Nerds may or may not carry their adolescent obsession into adulthood, but the scars of their obsession remain palpable. (Note: Rare is the person who becomes a nerd later in life. Bill Clinton, for instance, may have developed an unusual passion for policy in his 20s, but it never interfered with his social being.)

The popular parlance conflates nerd with nebbish. But the overlap between the two concepts is not large, more on the order of this:

W hile one could build a Nerd Hall of Fame, nebbishes are almost always anonymous. By definition, nebbishes are whiners, lacking self-confidence, generally inept, and on the losing end of social transactions–all characteristics that work against their ever achieving fame. The only famous nebbishes are fictional characters: George Costanza, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Gimple the Fool, George McFly in Back to the Future, and virtually anyone played by Woody Allen or Rick Moranis.

Other attributes: 1) Nebbishes are necessarily schlumpy, never handsome or physically robust. 2) The term is usually applied to men–often implying effeminacy. But it would not be inaccurate to describe a woman as a nebbish or as nebbishy. 3) Few nebbishes are actually nerds or intellectuals–some Woody Allen characters excepted. They lack the nerd’s enterprise and obsessivesness. By contrast, many nerds can be handsome (Gore) or self-confident to the point of arrogance (Gates, Gingrich).

At the heart of the nerd-nebbish divide is pity. Nebbishes are too pathetic to warrant actual disdain. They are too easy a target. On the other hand, nerds evoke envy. We hate them because they are smarter, or more studious, or more focused than we are. Nerds are genuinely threatening.

It is no accident that the word nebbish originated in Yiddish, a language without a nation that is spoken by a people repeatedly beaten down by pogroms and thus in a good position to empathize with nebbishes. So, to pose the obvious question: Is there something inherently Jewish about the nebbish? According to the great Yiddish linguist Max Weinreich, Jews appropriated the word nebbich from their Slavic neighbors in the 11th century. Indeed, other European nations with similar histories of subjugation maintain similar words. In Ukrainian, for instance, the word bidni refers to an unfortunate, pitiable soul. Italian has poverino. The fact that nebbish made it into English owes much to Jewish Borscht Belt comedians becoming ‘50s TV stars.

Nebbishes will never ascend to the heights of nerds. There will be no Revenge of the Nebbishes, no nebbish liberation. A nebbish could never gain real power. More easily, one can imagine nebbishes banding together to promote a nebbish agenda, kvetching that they are systematically discriminated against, demanding Nebbish Studies at universities, and complaining that history textbooks treat them as losers. But only a schmegegge would ever bet on a nebbish.

(Thanks to Charles Paul Freund for lending his erudition.)