What is this thing you call “nerd”?
Aliens, especially relatively humanoid ones who coexist with humans, also express curiosity of this strange human custom: why would humans put so much emphasis on a single word that appears to serve no useful function? Universally attractive aliens seem to be vulnerable for instantly falling for human men and needing to be taught in matters of kissing.
What is this thing you call “nerd”? (David Brooks)
Li argues that Westerners emphasize the Aha moment of sudden insight, while Chinese are more likely to emphasize the arduous accumulation of understanding. American high school students tease nerds, while there is no such concept in the Chinese vocabulary. Western schools want students to be proud of their achievements, while the Chinese emphasize that humility enables self-examination. Western students often work harder after you praise them, while Asian students sometimes work harder after you criticize them.
What is this thing you call “X”? (Geoff Pullum)
whenever someone says that the X people have no word for Y in their language you should put your hand on your wallet — to make sure it’s still there. The people who witter on about who has a word for what hardly ever even know the languages they are talking about, and in the vast majority of cases (check out some of the cases on this list) their claim is false.
Is there really a word for “nerd” in Chinese? (Victor Mair)
To sum up, even those informants who said that shūdāizi (“bookworm”) is the closest you can get to “nerd” in Chinese recognize that it is very different from the latter word in English. Many young people, especially in Hong Kong and also in Taiwan, simply use the English word “nerd”; the English word is also increasingly used on the Mainland. A graduate student from the Mainland states: “I’ve never heard a translation for ‘nerd’. If someone in China says it, the word must be in English.” Another graduate student from the Mainland declares: “When we talk about a geek in Chinese, we only say ‘geek’, using the English word. No Chinese word can deliver the exact meaning.”
A generous reading of Brooks might see him as saying something analogous to what Mair is saying, but Brooks and Mair are actually deploying very different notions of culture. For Brooks culture is monolithic and static, for Mair culture is heterogeneous and malleable. What is particularly problematic about Brooks is his conflation of China, the country, with the Chinese language. Not only there are many Chinese speakers living in the U.S. who have to deal every day with American stereotypes of Asian students as “nerds” but there Chinese speaking countries outside of China, like Taiwan, with very different education systems.
Which isn’t to say that “shūdāizi” means the same thing in Taiwan that “nerd” does in the U.S. It doesn’t. In fact, every time I teach the anthropology of education to my students here in Taiwan I find myself spending a lot of time trying to explain the U.S. concept of “jocks” and “nerds” so that my students can better understand the American texts. If anything, the Mair piece suggests to me that “nerd” is used more in China than it is in Taiwan.
It is important to keep in mind the very different histories of Confucianism in China and Taiwan. During the post-war period Taiwan’s KMT government, run by recent immigrants from China, sought local legitimacy by promoting Confucian values. In China, on the other hand, the revolution sought to overthrow Confucianism. It is only recently that China has once again sought the mantel of Confucianism, even promoting soft-power through international “Confucius Institutes.” Educational culture in the two countries is very much shaped by the political-economic history of educational institutions and can’t be easily reduced to what Brooks refers to all-too-readily as “Chinese culture.”
Moreover, as Mark Liberman points out in his latest post on the topic, even in the US the term “nerds” is much more complex than Brooks makes it out to be. Liberman sites Mary Bucholtz’ excellent work on nerd girls to highlight the complex dynamics by which the term “nerd” is shaped through local meanings:
I propose that nerds in US high schools are not socially isolated misfits, but competent members of a distinctive and oppositionally defined community of practice.
He ends with a call for more ethnographically informed discussions of the topic. Narf!