In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros

Why You Don't Fit In

Whatever happened to the well-rounded individual? He's seems to have transmuted into a misshapen oddball (c.1948). Oddballs come in a variety of sizes and shapes. You can't tell them without a program — a phrase that dates back to the early days of baseball and hawkers seeking to convince spectators of their needs for — you guessed it — programs (purchased from them) to properly identify the ballplayers.

First and foremost are the Geeks. This species of humankind is characteristically driven by a particular obsession, particularly role–play games, cars, computers (of course), fitness books, video games — all most often, to the exclusion of social skills. X–Box in hand, they're easily tripped over. It's not like we haven't been warned. The sign on the Microsoft campus alerts us: "Caution, Geeks, crossing." Geek (c.1611) is a misspelling of an obsolete word, geck, a "fool" who since Shakespeare's time has been synonymous with a doltish, clumsy, peculiar, and offensive person. Today's geek, however, is not without merit, being driven by particular technical skills and passionate interests for which he has a myopic dedication.

Arm in arm with him is the nerd (c.1965). They both exhibit a knowledge of their subject beyond what a lay person may even think is possible. Indeed, that could be the very definition of where the boundaries lie. He probably derives from nert, a late 1930s corruption of nut, slang for a "fool" or a "jerk;" though his roots can also be found in the name of a whimsical creature in If I Ran the Zoo (1950) by Dr. Seuss who, in turn, could have been inspired by Mortimer Snerd, the dummy and colleague of Charlie McCarthy, the standbys of noted ventriloquist Edgar Bergen.

A nerd is a geek in larval stage, without social knowledge or friends. He's got virtually no social skills or popular interests, has no illusions how he or she is unlike most people and feels no shame in it. Unlike the geek he's eminently unhireable and generally uninterested in any practical application or wider use of his detailed knowledge. Nerds tend to be more preachy and anal and hence more annoying and more obsessed. They are highly critical, and tend to put down people rather than help them (as most geeks will try to do, until they lose patience).

The dweeb, alas, is of uncertain lineage. Though some suggest he derives from a dick with eyebrows, ears, or eyes. That of course comes from their resentment of him as an obnoxious, over-diligent student. Technically he's competent, but his awkwardness and ineffectuality are quick to put others off. Unlike the geeks and the nerds, dweebs are constantly trying to fit in, with disastrous results, dedicating a significant portion of their daily lives to obsessing over how to pass as normal.

Higher up on the scale of social acceptability is the wonk. He's probably the invention of Harvard undergraduates, suggested by "know" spelled backwards. The wonk's m.o.: knowing-it-all by drawing heavily on his narrow field of interest. Congressional staffers and aides who specialize in a particular field of knowledge quickly establish themselves as policy wonks. Not everyone is pleased with him. Some prefer thinking of him as a derivation of wonk, "shaky" or wanker, an old British term referring to one "engaged in self–abuse," whose brains have been scrambled by engaging in too much you–know–what. This makes sense, given that the original jerk (c.1935) was defined as "a quick and suddenly arrested involuntary movement."

And that's how the oddballs bounce.