What exactly is a “nerd”?

A nerd is defined as a person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.

Nerdiness exists on a continuum. Some people are a little nerdy, while others are very nerdy. The more nerdy you are, the more oblivious of yourself as a social object you tend to be, which leads you to behave in socially awkward ways, such as dressing badly, or failing to take subtle hints.

The onset of nerdiness tends to come early in life and people often grow out of being nerds; rarely, if ever, does someone become a nerd later in life.

Because nerds are awkward and un-smooth, they tend to be rejected and isolated by peers; because it is emotionally painful to experience such marginalization, nerds tend to push themselves to be excellent in aspects of life that do not require social skills.

If they are at all smart, they tend to go whole hog into some intellectual pursuit. Computer science is a favorite, but any non-social intellectual pursuit will do.

Nerds can become very good at their chosen fields because they have very little to keep them from devoting all of their energy to those fields.

These are not balanced people with rich social lives. Instead, these are people who spend holidays writing papers.

I am painfully aware of this because I used to be one of these people.

One Christmas holiday, while visiting my oldest sister, my brother-in-law and my nephews in sunny California (I was born and raised in Chicago), I spent seventy percent of my waking hours writing adventures for my Dungeons & Dragons campaign, twenty percent was spent writing raps (yep, I was an avid fan of hip-hop too), eight percent was spent eating and bathing and the remaining two percent was spent chatting with family and thinking about what I was going to write next.

By the time my “vacation” was over, I was dead tired because, as an extrovert, I am actually energized by social interaction.

Some people’s nerdiness is a function of a condition called Asperger’s Disorder which is a mild pervasive developmental disorder on the same spectrum as Autism.

Asperger’s Disorder involves language and communication deficits which have a basis in neurological deficits. The prototypical person with Asperger’s learns language reasonably well, but doesn’t seem to experience language the same way as a normal person. Some quality of emotional transmission is missing.

People with Asperger’s often talk in odd cadences and/or they may fail to understand social reciprocity such that they may manifest an eccentric and one-sided social approach to others (e.g., pursuing a conversational topic regardless of others’ reactions).

An alternative kind of nerd is someone who develops a condition known as Schizotypal Personality Disorder. To say someone has a personality disorder in general is to say that they have grown up with some important part of the normal human coping toolkit missing or undeveloped.

People with personality disorders are developmentally delayed in important social-emotional ways that cause them to be “one trick ponies” who can only react to the world in a narrow and rigid set of ways.

When such a person is in their element, all is fine (because they know how to cope with their element), but when they go out of their element, they lack the flexibility to know how to cope appropriately and experience significant problems as a result (or for some personality disorders, other people experience significant problems).

Schizotypal Personality Disorder is characterized by a pervasive pattern of social and interpersonal deficits marked by acute discomfort with, and reduced capacity for, close relationships, as well as by cognitive or perceptual distortions and eccentricities of behavior.

Recall the character of Kramer from the television show Seinfeld and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like. People with Schizotypal PD are thought of as eccentric, weird, strange, or different. People tolerate them and may find them amusing but always tend to consider them an outsider.

Having a diagnosable disorder such as Asperger’s or Schizotypal PD might qualify a person as a nerd or a geek in some circles, but the reverse is not true. There are many nerds who don’t qualify for any diagnosable disorder. They may be the way they are for other reasons.

One primary reason that could push a person towards nerdiness is the presence of simple but profound social anxiety.

Social skills are learned through interaction with other children and adults during childhood and adolescence. If you are a very anxious child and avoid developmentally important social interactions, you will tend to remain delayed in your social-emotional skillfulness.

If, because of your social anxiety you cease to push yourself to interact and instead channel your energy into socially avoidant pursuits, the problem becomes compounded. Not being a member of intimate relationships means you are cut off from important feedback such as how to dress appropriately or when it is not good form to wear a backpack.

The true nerd will rationalize his or her odd social behavior, for defensive purposes. It is simply very painful to admit to yourself that you are essentially incompetent in this very important aspect of life.

Origin of the Nerd

And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo

And bring back an It-Kutch a Preep and a Proo

A Nerkle, a Nerd and a Seersucker, too! 

From If I Ran The Zoo, © 1950, Dr. Seuss

The first documented use of the word Nerd is in the 1950 Dr. Seuss story, If I Ran the Zoo, in which a boy named Gerald McGrew makes a several extravagant claims as to what he would do, if he were in charge at the zoo.

Among these was that he would bring a creature known as a Nerd from the land of Ka-Troo. The accompanying illustration showed a grumpy humanoid with unruly hair and sideburns, wearing a black T-shirt. A fitting image, these days, for a nerd.

The second documented occurrence of the word comes only a year after If I Ran The Zoo. The October 8, 1951 issue of Newsweek states on page 16:

In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.

On page 14 of the St. Joseph, Michigan, Herald-Press printed on 23 June 1952 it reads:

To ‘Clue Ya’ To Be ‘George’ And Not A ‘Nerd’ Or ‘Scurve’…If the patois throws you, you’re definitely not in the know, because anyone who is not a nerd (drip) knows that…

Once more, “nerd” is tied to “drip” and “scurve”; and from a city not far from Detroit, at that, just 8 months after the first sighting.

In the February 10, 1957, issue of the Glasgow, Scotland, Sunday Mail, the “ABC for Squares” column gave the definition as: Nerd – a square, any explanation needed?

The 1961-62 “Hamburg Show” featured a character named Millard Fillmore Nerd whose problem is that he is a square, having broken not a single rule.

All but the original Dr. Seuss give it the meaning of “a square” — a dull or boring person.


Like nerd, the term geek was originally an insult.

It was the word used to describe a carnival sideshow “freak”, whose peculiarity was behavioral rather than physical.

The denizens of the “geek pit” would do things like bite the heads off of chickens. The folk who played these roles were often of a similar physical type – tall, gangling men with prominent Adam’s Apples, big mouths and noses, and bug-eyes. Thus the phrase “pencil-necked geek”.

Thus, as an insult, a geek was originally someone with unbecoming habits and few social graces, whereas the nerd was dull and boring – a square. Both were outcasts, but one was hopelessly conventional, the other bizarre and outlandish.

Not surprisingly, as the terms became more common, they meshed with each other. The square not merely wore thick rimmed glasses, but repaired them with adhesive tape. His dull hairstyle became a generation or two out of style and he was not merely non-athletic, but clumsy, and perhaps gangling or slovenly.

Blerds and Bleeks

When I was in high school and college, the last thing anybody wanted to be was a nerd. Today, due to strong media attention and the election of a Black President who – along with his wife – is a professed nerd, nerdy is the new sexy in the Black community.

Thankfully, gone are the days of Steve Urkel as the poster-boy for Black nerdism. When I first laid eyes upon Urkel – played by actor Jaleel White – back in 1989, I said “there goes the death of young, Black male intellectuals”.


Just watch an episode of  Family Matters and witness the over-the-top nerdy antics of Steve Urkel – who was never given the time of day by his long-time love interest, Laura Winslow, until he morphed into his “cool” alter-ego, Stefan Urquelle – and you can see why many Black boys in the inner city did not want to be smart.

And it appears that Steve Urkel’s influence is quite far-reaching.

Take these recent statistics, taken from a study released in 2010 by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, for example:

Only 47% of black males finished high school for the school year.

Out of that number, only 28% of black males in New York City finish on time.

I am confident, however, that this will rapidly change, as Blerds – or Black Nerds are being touted all over the web as the new cool. College-aged and older Blerds are coming forth and reveling in their nerdy Blacknificence. I imagine our teens and tweens will soon follow suit.

Blerds, by nature, are not typically as extreme as their non-Black counterparts. They embrace and celebrate both Urban and Geek cultures. A Blerd may collect comic books, engage in Steamfunk cosplay and have a collection of the latest hip-hop music, or maybe even rap themselves.

 When I – and author Milton Davis – announced the coming release of Ki-Khanga: the Sword & Soul Role-Playing Game, we did so without losing any “street cred” or facing social alienation from the popular crowd. In fact, a whole host of people I did not think even knew what a Role-Playing Games is came forward with enthusiastic support and eagerly await the game’s release.

Blerds in the Media

Actress/writer Issa Rae’s brilliant web series, The Misadventures of AWKWARD Black Girl, about a nerdy Black girl and her many humorous escapades, has become an instant classic, popular with Black (and other) males and females, ages 13 and Older.

Another web series that is wildly popular with Blerds of all ages is Angela Tucker’s Black Folk Don’t, which explores the notion of stereotypes about Black people both without and within the African American community.

Theo – the black nerd at the center of Hans Gruber’s plot to steal $480m in bearer bonds in Die Hard – is both badass and master of technology.

Witty, empowered and shamelessly nerdy, Theo – played expertly by Clarence Gilyard, Jr. –  leapt from the screen and stole the show. “You didn’t bring me along for my charming personality,” he says, “…though you could have.”

Hip Hop producer/artist Pharrell of the Neptunes – an avid skateboarder, a professed lover of video games, a fan of Star Trek (he named his record label Star Trak) and a student of the works of astronomer Carl Sagan – named his quirky band N.E.R.D..

Andre Meadows, founder of http://www.blacknerdcomedy.com and known as The Black Nerd, blogs,vlogs and delivers a unique and very humorous perspective on racism, the workplace, entertainment, science-fiction, political correctness, and his own personal life.

The Black Nerds Network, hailing from the UK, is a collective formed to readdress the words, Black and Nerd. According to their website, they seek to connect with “fashion thinking, book reading, kite flying Nerds.

Blerd Warrior Syndrome

One’s strength can often be one’s weakness and many a Black Nerd has fantasies of being a superhero. While these fantasies are great stress relievers, Blerds must be careful of those fantasies, which are often nihilistic, becoming desires for martyrdom.

In a recent meeting with friends – all martial artists, athletes and intellectuals – one friend – a forty year old man of African descent – confessed that he wishes he was a real-life superhero in opposition to a powerful government or secret cabal; that he often prays for civilization to fall, so he can reinvent himself as a man who – armed with his wit, will and weapons – brings justice to a world of injustice and sculpts order out of chaos.

I confessed that, until I reached thirty-one years of age, I, too, had the same desire and, in fact, believed that I would die fairly young in an epic battle with an opponent of equal skill, intellect, experience and will. I was actually disappointed, at the time, to discover I was to walk a different path.

These escapist fantasies – often associated with being a “nerd” – are not unique to those classified, or identifying, as such.

These escapist fantasies are not unique to my small circle of friends and me – all of whom could be classified as “nerdy jocks” (Or jocky nerds? Sounds like a bunch of pocket protector wearing, taped-glasses sporting, little equestrians) – either.

In my research in the fields of psychology and sociology, I have found that a vast number of people of African descent – who do not identify as nerds, blerds or geeks – also long to escape into brave new – or old – worlds.

Related to this is the fact that, throughout the African Diaspora, fantasy and science fiction are rapidly growing in popularity.


In a world in which we have been marginalized, vilified, misrepresented and miseducated; in a near-dystopian world with a stranglehold on society, science fiction and fantasy books, games and movies create arenas for the “controlled decontrolling” of emotions.

It is not socially acceptable to hit your racist boss in the throat with a crushing elbow strike and destroying a wall of your duplex with a trebuchet when your landlord locks you out of your apartment for a late rent payment will land you in prison – and on some government watch list for owning a trebuchet in the first place.

So, escaping to worlds of magic, anachronistic technology and fantastic creatures allows us to do the things we wish we could do and to be what we wish we could be or – unstifled by an oppressive society – what we know we truly are.

Cosplay – “costume play”, the wearing of costumes that are the likenesses of characters from a certain era, film, television, comics, video games and novels – and role playing games, such as Dungeons and Dragons, World of Warcraft and Ki-Khanga: The Sword & Soul Role-Playing Game are perfect avenues of escape from mundane and profane lives. “Blerd Heaven”, my daughters call it ( and yes, all seven of them – and my son – are Blerds).

Escaping to another dimension or reality is normal. In fact, most people spend about half of their time daydreaming and fantasizing.

Daydreams and fantasy play a vital role in everyday life – inspiring us, regulating our moods and helping us contemplate future possibilities.

This includes the possibility of violence and, indeed, even evil. 

Parents who rail against games like Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed do not understand that idolizing villains such as Darth Vader and Agent Smith can be liberating.

Play and fantasy gives our youth the opportunity to practice what they will be later in life – as well as what they will never be.

For decades, fantasies of physical conflict and danger have been called “violent” by people who don’t trust or understand them, but such fantasies are valuable tools for the hard work of growing up. Black people, who arguably suffer the greatest anxiety about taking risks and the greatest reservations about exploring their own strength and destructive potential, have the most urgent need for fantasy.

Adults also often turn to fantasy for stress relief. With Blacks suffering from the highest rates of hypertension, high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes of any other ethnic group, fantasy and science fiction can literally save our lives.

For Black people, the most beneficial heroic narratives depict essential human struggles: betrayal, revenge and overcoming great odds.

In everyday living, we re-enact the classic conflicts and victories of the hero. We may not be real vampire hunters, but the monsters in our lives and psyche pose no less a threat.

So embrace that inner Blerd. Hell, give it wings and let it soar!

And take your place among the Blacknificent in The League of Extraordinary Black People!

About Balogun

Balogun is the author of the bestselling Afrikan Martial Arts: Discovering the Warrior Within and screenwriter / producer / director of the films, A Single Link, Rite of Passage: Initiation and Rite of Passage: The Dentist of Westminster. He is one of the leading authorities on Steamfunk – a philosophy or style of writing that combines the African and / or African American culture and approach to life with that of the steampunk philosophy and / or steampunk fiction – and writes about it, the craft of writing, Sword & Soul and Steampunk in general, at https://chroniclesofharriet.com/. He is author of eight novels – the Steamfunk bestseller, MOSES: The Chronicles of Harriet Tubman (Books 1 & 2); the Urban Science Fiction saga, Redeemer; the Sword & Soul epic, Once Upon A Time In Afrika; a Fight Fiction, New Pulp novella, Fist of Afrika; the gritty, Urban Superhero series, A Single Link and Wrath of the Siafu; the two-fisted Dieselfunk tale, The Scythe and the “Choose-Your-Own-Destiny”-style Young Adult novel, The Keys. Balogun is also contributing co-editor of two anthologies: Ki: Khanga: The Anthology and Steamfunk. Finally, Balogun is the Director and Fight Choreographer of the Steamfunk feature film, Rite of Passage, which he wrote based on the short story, Rite of Passage, by author Milton Davis and co-author of the award winning screenplay, Ngolo. You can reach him on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Afrikan.Martial.Arts; on Twitter @Baba_Balogun and on Tumblr at www.tumblr.com/blog/blackspeculativefiction.

7 responses »

  1. Larry says:

    Fantastic post! You are an excellent writer.

  2. […] the Steamfunk Movement, shoots off tales like there’s no tomorrow, assembled a League of Extraordinary Black People, and just wrote about Steampunk, Superheros, and Soft […]

  3. […] Spencer Williams was a multitalented man whose genius and unwavering determination have earned him a place in the League of Extraordinary Black People! […]

  4. […] I am a professed “Jocky Blerd” (“Blerd” = Black Nerd) – an athletic and fairly charismatic person who, nevertheless, is into things considered […]

  5. […] I am a professed “Jocky Blerd” (“Blerd” = Black Nerd) – an athletic and fairly charismatic person who, nevertheless, is into things considered […]

  6. Reblogged this on World of Values and commented:
    Novelist Balogun Ojetade on being a “Blerd”:

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