A nerd by any other name: Why naming matters

March 7, 2014

Semantically, there are differences between nerds, geeks, otakus, fans, anoraks, boffins, and various other cultural terms for people who appreciate specific activities, media, technology, and/or entertainment. Culturally, most people identify as only one of the above options. As conceptual brands, the above each have their own identities, positions, and communication styles. So which one do you fall under?

I’ve wandered between the nerd, geek, and otaku brands over the past two decades as I’ve delved into fantasy, sci-fi, historical fiction, steampunk, books, movies, manga, anime; FPS, JPRG, RPG, and simulator games, and dallied with cosplay, steampunk, and NASCAR fandoms. Calling me any one of the three though just doesn’t seem to be enough. The sub-genre of geek culture alone is incredibly diverse, as artist Scott Johnson depicts.

Tl;dr—There are as many fan-based groups, topics, and genres as there are people out there, and I’ve perused many of them. I don’t fit under just one. I’m more just “a fan” of many things.

So, does that make me a geek or a nerd or something else entirely? As fun as labels are, especially in branding, I honestly don’t believe I fall under any one group. I’ve certainly been called a nerd, geek, fan, and otaku at one time or another—Can’t say I’ve ever been called a boffin or anorak, but give it time.

Despite my dislike of falling under any one part of this convoluted Venn diagram, it does help when talking to others. Identifying myself as a “Firefly fan” gets appreciation from fellow geeks. If I mention my participation in certain manga/anime-centered podcasts, fellow otakus take notice. If I ramble about my appreciation for anything by Roc publishing (A Penguin imprint), nerds...actually tend to roll their eyes at me as they’ve heard my Roc rant more times than they can count.

Conversely, there are times where being named a nerd, geek, or otaku are detrimental to a conversation. Just as with duct tape or the force, there are both light and dark sides to these conceptual brands.

Otakus, while being knowledgeable in anima and manga, also have been stereotyped as being socially awkward, introverted, and lazy. Geeks are well versed in a multitude of knowledge, yet can be seen as obsessed with minute facts and aggressive about correcting any statements or opinions that don’t fall into their set of truths. Nerds know all there is to know about pretty much everything, and yet are portrayed as unpopular, awkward, and occasionally even ugly (at least in the eyes of societal concepts of beauty).

Just this past weekend, I attended a convention as a NaNoWriMo nerd, steampunk geek, Fairy Tail anime/manga otaku, and could easily have worn a dozen or so other labels had they become relevant in conversations. No one name covered me for the whole day.

Have you been called a specific label, or identify as a geek, nerd, otaku, whathaveyou? How do differentiate them all and how do others view you under these labels?

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