The Etymology of Nerd and Geek ... And A Bit of Love

There are a lovely group of people in London who occasionally organise fun networking events around town. Networking can be scary. It can be difficult to feel OK approaching and making conversation with strangers, so instead of just arranging more boring meet-ups, they take it a step further and arrange activity-based get togethers. Recently, Dan and I went to the Geek Foosball meet-up at Bar Kick in Shoreditch.

Some people don't like the terms 'geek' and 'nerd' and I suppose many of those feelings of discomfort probably hearken back to when they were used like barbs by meanies in school. Until about a year and a half ago, I worked in the Canadian arts sector and have always been arty and into things like writing, photography, going to museums ... I was even in choir in high school. Think Rachel from Glee without the fantastic voice. Even so, I don't remember people using those words - geek or nerd - to cause me pain in school. Maybe they did, but if it was preceded by the word 'art' or 'choir' (as in "art nerd" or "choir geek") I don't think it would have bothered me, or at least not enough to remember.

The etymology of the words nerd and geek are indisputably negative. According to the book Word Origins: The Hidden Histories of English Words from A to Z by John Ayto, nerd "is a term for a dull, socially inept or otherwise obnoxious person." It was actually invented by the popular children's author Dr. Seuss in his book If I Ran to the Zoo (1950):
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!
Geek, which is not covered in Word Origins, is much older. According to Answer Bag, "it is a variant of geck, a term of German/Dutch origin that dates in English to 1511. It means fool, simpleton, or dupe." Later on, the word was assigned to mean "a carnival performer who does disgusting acts" and eventually just was used generically to describe and "eccentric, oddball or someone with an unusual or odd personality."

I find it interesting that when these words were most socially damaging was in the 1950s in America, a time after the war when the country was clamoring to rebuild the 'big dream'. Homogeneity was important - everyone was expected to fall in line and fulfill their roles in the same way. People who were different were a threat and words were used as a nasty way to identify non-conformists. The strange oppression of 1950s America ushered in the 1960s, where everything changed and being odd and different was ok, even encouraged. Angry words that had been used to punish difference became somewhat less potent.

All this is a very long introduction to where we are now - 2010 in London, at a very hip bar in Shoreditch, surrounded by a genuinely diverse and friendly group of people, none of whom were carnival freaks or simpletons. Everyone I met was a young(ish) professional - some of them worked in technology companies (developers, techies and such tend to be most closely associated with the terms geek and nerd these days), some worked in film studios, some were photographers and one is even a popular food blogger. Nobody fit into a stereotype.

I like the reclamation of words like 'geek' and 'nerd' by people who are proud to be a little bit obsessive, a little bit manic and completely, unabashedly passionate about what they do. I guess that's how I would separate the nerds and geeks from everyone else - for the most part, they are enthusiastic and head-over-heels in love with something - technology, food, film, photography, even choir ... and they are not afraid to wear their excitement on their sleeve.

Everyone should be so lucky.

To see more pictures from Geek Foosball, click here.

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It Was the Best of Times ... It Was the Worst of Times ...

Photographs from New Years Eve at Callooh Callay in Shoreditch, London. Better late than never, right?

Note to self: champagne is bad for me, even if this disagrees. By the end of the night the Lewis Carol poem The Jaberwocky, which is the namesake for Callooh Calley, very much represented my state of mind. At least they didn't play Auld Lang Syne!

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Don't Pity Roger Ebert

Esquire recently posted a brilliant profile piece on film critic and writer Roger Ebert. I used to love watching Siskel and Ebert's televised film reviews on At the Movies but never really developed much of a sense of who either of them were as human beings. They had amazing chemistry and were fun to watch, but they didn't really exist outside of the most obvious character traits that were so predominant in their show. The one exception was when Ebert spoke of Gene Siskel's death on the first episode after it happened. In that moment it was obvious that the two men were more than two people simply doing a job and acting up for the camera.

Ebert has had a difficult decade. He developed various forms of cancer that affected his jaw, eventually resulting in its full removal. He can no longer talk, eat or drink and has suffered through a series of horrifying surgeries. But he is writing more than ever, much of it on his brilliant blog. He also has one of the most interesting feeds on Twitter. Like anything, technology can be misused and warped by malicious people. I love this story, this example of how it can enable wonderful things. It is inspiring, and if nothing else, it's an example of how significant social media can be and how important access is.

Ebert doesn't believe in God and he doesn't seem to want to be turned into a self-help guru. Nevertheless, he's learned a few things:
I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn't always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Ebert wrote the note at the top of this post during his Esquire interview. He's turned the act of making lemonade into an art. I'm going to try to keep this in mind as I head into Monday morning.

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Featured on Pictory - YAY!

I am really excited that one of my photographs is featured on Pictory - a great website that combines storytelling and photography. The site is really well designed and my photo is in some great company. It's also currently featured as the header on their home page. It feels really special because the stories are curated - having some encouragement from non-biased sources is almost embarrassingly gratifying.

Really nice way to end my 31st year (it's my birthday tomorrow)!

Big thanks to Friday Films, who is featured in the image. She's always been truly lovely to photograph - both inside and outside of our small Canadian town.

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Valentine's Day

We were lazy and slept in. Dan surprised me with champagne and chocolate and I made 'love stew' (beef stew with lots of red wine and yorkshire puddings) for dinner. Lovely, relaxing, perfect.


Hope everyone feels loved today.

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I'm not sure how I missed Tavi. She's a thirteen year old geek from Chicago and she's obsessed with fashion - not in the celebrity, Le Chateau rip-off wanna be way but in this really earnest, creative, not-afraid-to-be-weird way.

It's hard not to fixate on the fact that she's thirteen, because she is so far removed from how I was at that age - how most people were/are. The most marked difference is how brave she is. Yes, the fashionistas love her and have christened her this season's mascot, but from some of her posts, I get the sense that her classmates don't appreciate her unique spirit in the same way. Their reaction when she dyed her hair blue:

Why'd you dye your hair? BECAUSE I HATE BLUE HAIR.
Did you know your hair is blue? WHAT?! IT IS??! NOBODY INFORMED ME OF THIS!
Well aren't you a little badass/rebel! FIND A BETTER LOCATION THAN THE LIBRARY TO TELL ME THIS.
Sadly no funny analogies today! Come ON kids, put your brains to work and deliver the goods next time! Luckily this stuff will be in for a couple months so get your brains to work.
Not that Tavi needs advice from me, but if she did, or if I could talk to myself at the tender age of thirteen: I would like to tell you it gets easier and people get nicer as you get older, but it's really not true. Some people get a life and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and whether they are conforming, and others never do. If you're lucky they'll be honest enough to be bitchy to your face and if you're not, they'll do shit behind your back (usually not very subtly). There are always going to be mean girls and boys. An unfortunate truth. Most of them are insecure and unhappy, but some of them are just mean and bored or stuck in a pond they don't like. The good news is that as an adult, you generally have a greater ability to avoid the bitches - unlike in school which pretty much has you stuck with the same kids five days a week. Hopefully, with age the filter gets a little better and you stop letting the scum get right up close to you. The water is a little clearer.

Tavi dies her hair silver and blue and wears odd things that don't look conventionally beautiful and writes her blog and does her thing. I'm sure the meanies get to her (including the lurkers who post mean shit anonymously on the internets) but she strikes me as stubbornly and uniquely herself, which occasionally means being a bit of a freak.

I am turning 32 this week (32!!) and I could learn a lot from her. Fuck the haters. I'm flying my Tavi flag.

Both images from the Tavi website.

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In Case You Missed Them: Four New Posts by Me on The Januarist This Week

Read it here

Read it here.

Read it here.

Read it here.

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Reading - Last Six/Seven Weeks

I've been reading a lot lately: on the tube, on trains, in bed, in the bath. I don't have a lot of free time, but I've taken to stealing moments wherever and whenever I can. Though I've always been a big reader, my enthusiasm for it comes and goes, and the craving for books tends to come hand in hand with times when I'm feeling more creative myself.

There are so many books I want to read before we go traveling in the spring, because books are heavy and I'm not going to be able to take many of them with me. I am debating purchasing a Kindle because it is infinitely more practical to carry around the world than a library of books, but I love the smell and feel of a real book (though granted, not the heft or weight). If anyone uses a Kindle, let me know your thoughts.

Here are some of my recent reads:

Alice Munro, Runaway
I've been never been a big reader of Munro, despite having majored in English Lit and Women Studies in university. For some inexplicable reason, I've always associated her with required Canadian Lit reading - the sooty cannon of my homeland's fiction that isn't exciting or good, just well written in that placid, polite way that Canadians are known for. Runaway is prefaced by Jonathan Franzen, who proclaims over and over again in the first 20 pages of the book that, in no uncertain terms, Runaway will save your soul.

I don't know that my soul was saved, but then I don't know that it was in danger to begin with; but I did really enjoy this book. It was quiet and sad and had really lovely moments that felt like looking in a mirror tenderly at an older version or a not yet existing version of myself. Not that I think Munro is writing about me - but her characters are filled with all the doubt, regret and joy that haunt most self-aware people.

The Millennium Trilogy by Steig Larsson ( The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo , The Girl Who Played with Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest )
Sometimes it's really nice to read a book because it is easy and fun. This trilogy is not terribly well written and I have all kinds of issues with some of the linguistic decisions the translator made. There are way too many unnecessary applications of the word 'had' in these books. For example,
"Ever since he had begun his relationship with Cecilia he had talked fairly openly about Harriet with her. Cecilia had already deduced that this was his real assignment, even though he never formally admitted it. He had certainly never told Henrik that he and Cecilia had discussed the subject."
I actually think this obsessive use of the word 'had' becomes more pronounced with book two and three. It drove me a little mad to the point where the only way I could continue was by removing them in my head as I read.

I originally found Larsson because his life and death was such a curiosity. He built his career as a journalist on exposing corruption and fighting fascism in Sweden, with a particular focus on skin heads and neo-nazis. He never published fiction before the Millennium books and even at that, he wrote all three of them before finding a publisher. Only weeks before the first book was set for release, he died suddenly, barely in his mid-fifties, of a heart attack. His partner of over 30 years is currently in a battle with his estranged father and brother who want control of Larsson's literary estate. Larsson and his partner never married because in Sweden, when you marry, your name and address is put on a public registry. Because he made some pretty major enemies throughout his career as a journalist, he was worried about the safety of his partner if their address was put into the public domain.

The Millenium Trilogy aren't a great work of art, but they are fast paced, the plots are intricate and most important to me, I got to really care about the two main characters. I rooted for them both and found myself reading quite quickly through to find out what would become of them. Lisbeth Salander in particular is a really great character - autistic, difficult, brave, vindictive and brilliant. Nancy Drew for the adult, modern, conflicted woman. Strangely, Larsson seemed to identify the most with his female characters and most of the men in his novels are hateful and abusive. Women are mostly victims, with Lisbeth Salander as the vindicator and martyr - the strong, angry woman who keeps rising up to fight, well, everyone. It's not Chekov, but if nothing else, an entertaining, good read.

I'm currently about mid-way through Capote: A Biography by Gerald Clarke and next up are Nine Tormented Hope: Nine Hypochondriac Lives by Brian Dillon, and The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Anyone reading anything good? I am always interested in recommendations.

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After a stressful, cold (for London) winter, we've made a pact to get in shape before our lives are turned upside down (this time in a good way) in the spring. For me, it's not so much about being svelte and I certainly don't have any illusions of being waifish. I love good food, good wine and my life is far too full of wonderful things to waste too much time comparing myself against the likes of Kate Bosworth. Besides, I like my hips and my boobs and I like that, even in the dark, no one would mistake my body for anything other than that of a woman. My new fashion idol these days is Christina Hendricks, the red haired actress who plays Joan Holloway in Mad Men. Good god that woman is hot.

Right, we were talking about running. The thing is, when I actually make a point of doing it on a regular basis, I really love running. I like being outside, I like turning up peppy/poppy music on my iPod and letting it propel me forward. When it's really good, it feels almost like dancing. My adrenaline level goes up and I feel like I could run forever. So today, for the first time in a good two months, I went for a run and it hurt and my lungs felt like they were on fire. A few months ago, I was at the point where I could do my 2 km at a decent pace without stopping much to catch my breath. Today I was pretty much back at square one - huffing and puffing and trying to bargain with myself - "OK, just run to the end of that block, then you can walk for a minute!"

Not fun, but strangely, still rewarding. So I have made a pact with myself to go between three and four times a week and keep this up until I have my easy 2 km back. Awhile back I bought a Nike + Kit for my iPod. It gives me the little bit of extra motivation I need and I really like getting back to see a graphical representation of my run. How far I went, how fast, how many calories. Back when I was going more regularly, I loved hearing the Nike + voice tell me, "Congratulations! That was your best time!"

About five years ago, I took Krav Maga with my friends Carrie and Jackie (pictured with me at the top of this post). For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, Krav Maga is essentially Israeli street fighting and it's one of the strands of training done by the Israeli army. It's hard core, even in my little Canadian prairie town. I remember feeling like I would die during those first weeks of classes. I simultaneously felt like I might pass out or vomit, all while wishing a little that someone would render me unconscious so that it wouldn't hurt anymore and so that god damned Richard (our instructor) would stop yelling at me to go harder and faster. Our knuckles bled and we were black and blue, but we kept going back and eventually, it didn't hurt as much (except for the knuckles, those always hurt). And we were motivated by the fact that we felt strong and empowered and like we could quite likely kick the ass of any idiot stupid enough to try anything - or at least kick his ass long enough to run away.

In one class our instructor taught us what to do if someone was choking us - how to get away. It involved a quick twist, an elbow to our attackers face and a quick knee in the balls. For weeks we went around saying, "Come on, grab my neck!" to friends so we could demonstrate the technique, sometimes with not a lot of success. It was fun and challenging and we all loved it, even the inevitable stiffness the day after hard workouts, which we would whine about over brunch.

Being healthy shouldn't be a chore and it makes me sad how many people (usually women) feel they need to starve themselves to feel acceptable. Admittedly, I've had a pretty bad winter health-wise. I haven't been sick, but I haven't been taking care of myself the way I should. I don't feel strong and I want that back.

So my fitness goal over the next six months isn't to loose a certain amount of weight or fit into a smaller dress size. I want to feel like I can run forever.

Images of Christina Hendricks from here and here.

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"There has never been such a collection of bitchy people. They were all obsessive gossips, and they were absolutely consumed with one another. I was never gangy or very chummy with any of them. I guess one of the real reasons was that I knew they were going to stay there, and I wasn't. It was like being in a school where you knew certain people were going to graduate and certain people weren't." Truman Capote on his tenure at the New Yorker.
Image from

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Kick Ass

This looks so good!!

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New by me on The Januarist - Dear Donna: How a Pinup Girl Joined the Anti-War Movement

Read it here.

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If George Can Do It ...

I'm not now, nor have I ever been a huge George Clooney fan. I have nothing against him but just think he's kind of boring and that silver hair makes him look old to me. Still, I love this picture, presumably taken some time during high school.

The message? Things can and do change radically. If this young, awkward boy can become one of the world's sexiest men alive, anything is possible so you may as well have big, bold dreams.

Image from Unique Scope's Rare Photos of Famous People .

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New by me on The Januarist - J.D. Salinger, Famous Shut-ins and Hikikomori in Japan

Read it here.

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London's Highgate Cemetery

Last week, Dan and I spent a cloudy Sunday afternoon exploring the the east side of Highgate Cemetery. It was an amazing, forgotten world of stunning and occasionally disturbing tomb stones. I was most touched by Paul Foot's simple grave, which is an excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Mask of Anarchy:

Rise like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which is sleep had fallen on you
Ye are many - they are few

Other notables are the graves of Karl Marx and Douglas Adams.

One of the stranger sites was the above series of pictures featuring a woman that had been torn up and then carefully set back together near the entrance to the cemetery. Very strange. There had also obviously been some mischief around the cemetery, which could be seen through acts like the positioning of a damaged angel statue (it had no head) on top of a grave on it's back, as though it were a corpse. There are, of course, plenty of stories about the ghosts and vampires of Highgate Cemetery - including a crazy story about a group of students who got caught up in it in the 70s.

We didn't see any ghosts, but it was a spooky experience. I am quite keen to go back and explore the west side of the cemetery, which apparently has Egyptian tombs and catacombs. It costs £3 to get in either side of Highgate Cemetery and admission goes towards an organisation charged with sustaining and protecting it. Well worth a visit.

You can see more photos of the cemetery on my Flickr page, here.

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