Daily Archives: September 26, 2011


The time is come around again: shoals of students appear in the hallowed, formerly hollow hallways of schools across the country. The youngest are wide-eyed oo; older ones stay cool as they scan their schedules. Some submit meekly, and some dive in enthusiastically, while others resist in ways passive or active. They are socialized in ways society finds expectable and acceptable, and may seek out opportunities for going against the grain. But for all it is an important part of their formation through information: they learn things that may not be self-evident, some of which may even be capriciously arbitrary, but they also learn to use their brains.

One of the things they learn is, of course, to spell – English spelling being so capricious as to be mocked in the reference to the elementary school trivium as the “three r’s” (reading, riting, and rithmetic). They may have heard this word school, but they couldn’t possibly predict its spelling from its pronunciation. In fact, they will certainly learn that sch as a rule is pronounced the same as sh, leading to mispronunciation of bruschetta and variant pronunciations of schism and schedule (thoroughly capricious words, neither of which having any actually good historical reason for having an h).

But they will learn that this word is pronounced /skul/; on the other hand, they are unlikely to learn that it comes from Greek σχολή scholé, and thence Latin schola, and has cognates in pretty much all Western European languages, most of which spell it without the h – as English also did until around 500 years ago, when the h was added back in, presumably because that’s how it is in Latin (idealized at the time and often since as the model language) and Dutch (native tongue of many of the early typesetters of English).

School is one of the earliest words kids will learn, so it will affect their perception of some other words, and it will have countless social accretions and collocations. Many of those will involve songs – old standards such as “School days, school days, good old golden rule days” or the one we sang on the bus home from the last day of school, “No more school, no more books, no more teachers’ dirty looks,” etc., or any of quite a lot of popular songs (songs by Supertramp and the Moody Blues spring to mind immediately for me; I wonder what today’s students associate musically with school).

There are also a few words that school may or may not make you think of but that might make you think of school: cool, skull (actually remarkably different for how similar it is), spool, stool, and snool (verb, “submit meekly” or “cause to submit meekly”; noun, “one who submits meekly”).

There are many words that show up commonly with school: before it, elementary, high, public, private, etc.; Sunday, business, medical, etc.; after it, year, bus, uniform, etc.; and of course verbs such as go to, finish, skip, and prepositions such as after, at, and in. The verbs and prepositions demonstrate a particular grammatical fact about school that native speakers have no trouble with but adult learners of English often find confusing: it can be a countable (at a school) or a mass object (at school). Sort of like fish.

Ah, yes, fish. As in a school of. Why are fish in schools? Lexical splitting and merging. On the one side we have this word descended from Greek and Latin and referring to a place of education; on the other side, and taking the form school just a couple of hundred years ago, we have a Germanic word with the same meaning and origin as shoalschool and shoal split apart at about the same time as school regained its h. That’s shoal as in “large group of marine life”; shoal as in “shallow area in the water” is of different origin, cognate with shallow. English words split and merge about as readily as high school romantic pairings.

Oh, yes. What do you remember from school, really? How much of the experience of the lessons? And how much of the social experience? We have school reunions to meet up with friends and to relive our fun times, not to review notes from our classes. But is not school work? It involves it, of a sort, but we ought to remember that school originally – and still, for some people in some places – is something one does instead of work. (In our society, grad school is certainly known as such.) You take your leisure time to learn something new and interesting – just as you are doing this very moment. After all, as you probably did not learn in school, Greek σχολή originally meant “leisure”.

nerd, geek

Dear word sommelier: When should I call someone a nerd, and when should I call someone a geek?

I ought to be a reasonable authority on this, since I’ve been something of a nerd and a geek for pretty much my whole life, although in recent years I’ve become socially adept enough, and learned to dress myself well enough, that my status has occasionally seemed questionable. But my wife still calls me a “sexy geek” and many of my readers call me a “word nerd,” so I guess I still meet the criteria.

But what are those criteria? They’ve shifted during the course of my life. When I was in high school in the early ’80s, geek was really a rather insulting term – I tended to think of some skinny person who couldn’t dress himself properly and had no social skills, or at least no non-repugnant ones.

I do think the phonaesthetics of the word, including the articulatory gesture it involves (mouth spread wide as though you’re trying to swallow something unpleasant and slimy, and the tongue’s double-touch at the back of the mouth reinforces that), had some influence on my sense of it. It was also commonly bruited about that the term originally referred to someone who bit the heads off live chickens. (The correct term for that is actually Alice Cooper Ozzy Osbourne. Oh, sorry, that was a bat.) In fact, geek was used as a name for sideshow freaks of various sorts, especially those who ate nasty things; its origins seem to be a Low German word for “fool”, via Scots English. Somehow it came to be transferred to what Brits call swots and anoraks. But with the rise of computers as a major social tool and necessity, those kids you used to insult have turned out to be very valuable: the ones who are immoderately interested and expert in things that most people find flummoxing and perhaps a bit distasteful. It’s sort of revenge of the geeks.

Wait! The movie is Revenge of the Nerds! So why is it that we tend to use geek more than nerd for these kinds of people now? When I was in school, nerd was what you called the smart kids who weren’t smooth socially but were well-intentioned and knew all sorts of stuff that everyone else would never know. Nerds dressed for function, not looks – pocket protectors, tape on the glasses – and were fascinated with things that made other people’s eyes glaze over. And you know what? I still think of nerds that way. Nor am I the only one. I think of the YouTube videos by NurdRage (yes, a different spelling), in which various chemical and other physical stunts are shown – cool lab stuff. Cool, that is, if you like to see, for instance, how you can make flowers glow in the dark, or use a chemical reaction to cause gallium to beat like a (small and fast) heart.

Nerd is a 20th-century term, possibly coming from nert, a slangy variant on nut. It’s a softer word, with a nasal sound characteristic of many a nerd’s speech; it stays near the tip of the tongue but uses that syllabic /r/ for its peak, which may seem intense or ineffectual. It seems suitable for something ineffectual and without sharp edges. A possible prime vector for the word is Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd is a kind of exotic critter. Which, come to think of it, nerds still are, sorta. (Nerds are also a kind of candy: tangy, crunchy sugar nubs sold under the Willy Wonka brand. Could you imagine a candy called Geeks? Me neither.)

Why, then, has geek taken over? It seems that nerd has retained the sense of “an intellectually inclined person without social skills” and geek has kept the sense of “someone who has an abnormal amount of knowledge and interest in a certain topic” – as tvtropes.org points out, “There can be such a thing as a Fashion Geek, someone who knows a lot about fashion and is pretty obsessed with it. A Fashion Nerd, in contrast, would be completely unaware that stripes and plaids are unmix-y, and wouldn’t care, even if you told them why the two don’t mix.”

I would add that, while sexy nerd remains something of an oxymoron, the collocation sexy geek is reasonably current – Wired magazine has even had a “Sexiest Geek” contest, and you can see a buxom devochka discourse on geek and call herself a sexy geek at www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9jlefnXKyQ. As she points out, intelligence has become very popular, and that has caused geek’s stock to rise somewhat.

But I find that the distinction is not altogether clear cut. In some cases the sound matters – for instance, where word geek might seem natural, rhyme helps word nerd to prevail. Often, though, personal proclivity comes into it. Of course, not everyone cares that much; if you have strong opinions on the difference very much, then, as the great nerd (or is it geek) comic strip xkcd diagrams, you are a nerd, a geek, or both: xkcd.com/747/.

But speaking of Venn diagrams (since you’re a geek, a nerd, or both, you know that intersecting-circle diagrams are Venn diagrams), there is one currently making the rounds that purports to set the matter straight on the difference between not just nerd and geek but also dork and dweeb: www.buzzfeed.com/scott/nerd-venn-diagram. It’s not bad, but I don’t find that everyone sees it exactly that way. I polled editors and people on Twitter and got a mixture of responses, among which were the following distinctions:

– nerds are less intelligent than geeks
– nerds are much bigger losers
– on Big Bang Theory (wondering how long it would take for me to mention it?), Leonard is a geek but not a nerd, while Sheldon is both
– nerds are antisocial, while geeks are just not socially focused
– nerds have no friends, while geeks have people seeking their advice
– nerds use pocket protectors; geeks don’t
– geeks are cool
– nerds swim against the pop culture grain; geeks are more tech-focused
– nerd = geek squared
– a geek has a useful skill

I just asked my wife if I was a geek; she said “Of course.” I asked her if I was a nerd. She demurred. I asked what the difference was. She had to think. “Well… they’re both genius… geek seems to be more… suave?”

So, in the current linguistic climate – though this may well change – although the terms have a certain amount of overlap, and although you have to allow for factors such as rhyme, generally geek is applied more broadly and with a certain amount of approbation, rather like wonk, while nerd has a greater connotation of social ineptitude or some kind of cluelessness. Among the crowd watching planes take off and land, a geek would be more like an aviation photographer, a nerd more like a planespotter. Trainspotters and other anoraks are no longer geeks; they’re not cool enough. Oh, but what about gongoozlers? A class of their own, I think.