How the geek has won

Published April 23, 2021, 10:00 AM

by AA Patawaran

If nerditude can make you a billionaire at age 23, who cares about being uncool and unpopular?

A NERKLE, A NERD, AND A SEERSUCKER TOO Dr. Seuss’ signature illustration on the cover of ‘If I Ran the Zoo,’ the book credited for the first modern English use of the word ‘nerd’ on print

A lot has changed since Mark Zuckerberg became a billionaire at age 23.

In 2016, as he posted about his dream to make an AI robot to run his household and help with his work, a fan commented with lavish praise and said, “I keep telling my granddaughters to date the nerd in school, he may turn out to be a Mark Zuckerberg!” He was cool about it. In response, he told the commenter to encourage her granddaughters to be nerds themselves, so they need not look for a Mark Zuckerberg.

But what is a nerd? Most dictionary definitions are outdated. Merriam Webster defines the word as “a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.” In the Oxford dictionary, a geek is “a person who is boring, wears clothes that are not fashionable, does not know how to behave in social situations, etc.”

The Britannica has a far more interesting take, exploring the etymologies of the words geek and nerd, both of which, on account of their bizarre origins, have had negative connotations. Geek is derived from the Middle German word that means “fool” or “freak.” Nerd, on the other hand, is from the alteration of the word nut, meaning nutcase, which had evolved in the 1940s to nert, meaning “crazy, stupid person,” and then later to nerd.

In his book “American Nerd: The Story of My People,” Benjamin Nugent claimed that the word first appeared in Dr. Seuss’ book “If I Ran the Zoo,” published in 1950, in which, for his imaginary zoo, the narrator collected “a Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too.” The word nerd caught on, taking the form of slang and, in just a year, it spread throughout the US, all the way to Scotland, as a word you used when you mean a bookish or socially inept person, “a drip or a square,” as Nugent added.

…encourage them to be the nerd in their school so they can be the next successful inventor! —Mark Zuckerberg

But times have changed. Bill Gates was a nerd in his childhood, but who doesn’t want to be Bill Gates now, or even only as rich as he is? There’s also science freak and internet entrepreneur and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos. And the young hackers Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who built the Apple computer just to impress their friends. Of course, to many, the English theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking was a rock star. If I spent more of my time in high school between the covers of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past,” rather than in the barroom or the club floor, it would have been me, instead of the preposterously rich Swiss-born English philosopher Alain de Botton, writing the bestselling “How Proust Can Change Your Life.”

GEEK MYTHOLOGY A scene from the comedy Revenge of the Nerds with actors Anthony Edwards (left) and Robert Carradine

In my time, to be branded a nerd could ruin your life. The label was so dreaded that many of the teens, smart as they were, dimmed their lights, if not totally switched them off to hide their obsession with, say, “the eternal recurrence of the same,” as explored in Friedreich Nietzsche’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” or their collection of Darth Vader or Superman or Wonder Woman or Ms. Pac-Man underoos, or the fact that they would spend weekend nights on the roof in the deep study of the colors of the stars, going from hot blue to cool red, overhead. Worse still, we might have lost the prodigious mathematical solutions to a problem-yet-to-come called climate change that at least one of these smart kids might have furtively scribbled down the pages of his Trapper Keeper. For fear of being jumped by the jocks and made fun of by the cheerleaders, he could have locked all that up and thrown away the key.

The movie “Revenge of the Nerds” came out in 1984 and it might as well have been a self-fulfilling prophecy. Still, the words nerd and geek, geek more than nerd because geek is often still interchanged with dork, retain some of their pejorative meanings that conjure up braces, buck teeth, acne, oversized eyeglasses, waist-high pants, and awkward, annoying company.

But since the rise of Silicon Valley and the subsequent takeover of technology in most aspects of modern life, the smartest of the bunch, the ones too smart to bother with what it takes to be a popular kid in high school—slick hair, muscles, a perfectly planned wardrobe, and dating the campus crush—are now seen to have the most potential in accumulating a fortune or influencing culture.

These days, to be a nerd is cool, to be a geek is chic. No more shame wearing a shirt emblazoned with “Got Food Poisoning? Could B. Cereus” and, if the pun is lost on anybody clueless about microbiology, it’s their loss. Who can argue against $3.2 million, the fortune a geek collector earned in 2014 from the sale of his sealed copy of Action Comics No. 1, published in 1938?

Maybe it’s weird that you memorized the periodic table of elements at age two or connected your Nintendo game console to a mobile phone in grade six, or applied for your first patent for a groundwater recycling system designed to reuse wastewater from sprinklers when you were just 13. You’re not a freak. You’re far more than smart. You’re not just a prodigy. You’re a geek. You are Austin Russel, founder of Luminar Technologies, the youngest billionaire at age 26 on Forbes’ 2021 list of world billionaires.

Or you could be the next one. Why not? There’s no need to be popular in these socially distanced times. There are no parties. The clubs are closed. The gyms are shuttered. And even the King and Queen of the Prom are, like you, in their house clothes all day.

You can spend all day on Wikipedia or YouTube, to which Austin Russel says he owes it all, or online shopping for sports memorabilia primarily because it’s fun for you and also because you want to make serious cash from it later on, as much as the $200,000 someone made out of his William “Refrigerator” Perry’s 1985 Super Bowl XX rings at an auction in 2015.

YOUNG AND SUPER RICH The youngest, newest self-made billionaire on Forbes 2021 list, 26-year-old Luminaire founder Austin Russel

Release your inner geek now while it’s cool and it’s rich. You need not be as annoying as Napoleon Dynamite in your semi-opaque glasses and with all your anti-social quirks. You just need to be supersmart, care about how things work, and get obsessive about it.

 
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