Most of my life, I’ve been called names like “space cadet” or “airhead”—generally with fond intentions. This used to bother me, but over time even I could laugh at the joke—because it was so true! I now embrace my fondness for daydreaming and disdain for the practical. Hey, they even named a candy after me!
People have come up with many creative and colorful words—such as geek, nerd, or maven—to capture certain personality types. As with Homer’s famous epithets, to me this class of words represents a kind of poetry—because they capture an entire set of traits, connotations, and behaviors in one small, concise package. Like “the gray-eyed goddess Athena,” “the crafty Odysseus,” or “the swift-footed Achilles” in his Iliad and Odyssey (c. 750 B.C.), calling someone a space cadet, wonk, or diva sums up their personality in deft shorthand. But many of these terms have surprising origins.
What is most interesting about this class of words is that, although most began life as derogatory insults, over time their meanings have changed to became badges of honor. Whether this is due to increased cultural awareness of the cruelty of bullying, or the ever-increasing complexity of our technology and resultant appreciation for those who understand it, many of these personality words have evolved into compliments. With role models like Elon Musk, Bill Gates, and Mark Zuckerberg, formerly supposed social outcasts suddenly became the cool kids. Enter the Geek Squad, a 1990s branding ploy that signaled this changing status (now perhaps considered old fashioned, it has recently been rebranded as Totaltech). Name-calling is neither kind nor acceptable. But used purely as lighthearted, descriptive terms to sum up a personality type, these nicknames can be useful.
In Robert Heinlein’s 1948 novel Space Cadet, character Matt Dodson aspired to attain this rank. The term later caught on with other sci-fi writers to refer to any young astronaut. Continuing to morph to cover any space travel enthusiast and then a pilot who shows off, by the 1970s it “commonly refers to those of us who may seem to have our minds in outer space while our bodies remain earthbound” (merriam-webster.com). An airhead is a similarly scatterbrained individual, someone whose head contains plenty of airspace. These individuals may also be called flaky, but snowflake has now taken on a broader, politically-tinged meaning as someone who is overly sensitive and easily offended by ideas with which they disagree.
An old-fashioned version of this kind of flighty dilettante is flibbertigibbet, one of many incarnations of the Middle English word flepergebet, meaning “gossip” or “chatterer.” It is created from sounds intended to represent meaningless chatter. In King Lear (c. 1606), William Shakespeare used flibbertigibbet as the name of a devil, and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) echoed this connotation 200 years later when he used it as the nickname of an impish urchin in his novel Kenilworth. But by the end of the 19th-century, it had settled on the meaning of “silly, flighty person.”
At the other end of the spectrum from these characterizations for a forgetful dreamer are the various nicknames for smart, intellectual types, such as geek, nerd, and wonk. In a recent video ad for Bloomberg, a glasses-wearing professional boasts, “We’re the geeks who grind the numbers.” A geek usually refers to an enthusiast or expert, especially in a technological field or activity. But it originally referred to a carnival performer who, as part of an act, would bite the head off a live chicken or other small animal! Don’t ask me how that morphed into a technology expert!
A nerd also connotes intelligence and expertise, but often designates a more general enthusiast than only technology lovers, such as a chess nerd or a word nerd (like me). This word also has an unexpected origin: it is believed to have been coined by Dr. Seuss, in his 1950 classic If I Ran the Zoo, to describe one of the many fantastic beasts young Gerald McGrew plans to add to his zoo. It was later adopted via teen slang to mean an awkward but studious individual, and ultimately an admirably knowledgeable expert.
Wonk goes one step beyond geek and nerd to mean a person preoccupied with arcane details or procedures in a specialized field—one that the average person would not understand—such as a policy wonk. This causes wonks to be even more indispensable than geeks or nerds; the latter may know a lot, but the wonk is expected to know everything. First used in the 1950s, the origin of wonk is unknown, but may have come from a 1940’s series of children’s books called The Adventures of Wonk by English author Muriel Levy, about an intrepid koala bear. It also may have derived from the German engineer Frank Wankel, who developed a rotary internal combustion engine in the 1950s. What these nicknames all have in common is that they are short and fun to say.
Guru and maven are even more admirable than geek and nerd. Guru, which derives from the personal religious teacher and spiritual guide in Hinduism, denotes a person who has spent a lifetime becoming a complete master and teacher of a particular subject, to whom we look for guidance. In ancient India, a guru was often looked on as the living embodiment of spiritual truth who prescribed spiritual discipline to their devotees.
A maven is both an expert and a success story, someone whom others view as a model—often in an arts field, such as a fashion maven or marketing maven. This word comes from the Yiddish meyvn, which means “one who understands.” Other synonyms are aficionado or connoisseur.
Diva, which originally meant “goddess” in Italian, was first used for renowned female singers. Now it is often used for anyone who is temperamental, dramatic, and overly demanding.
Now we come to the less flattering sobriquets—the French word for descriptive nicknames. These are deliberately derogatory, and should be avoided as insulting. But they can be useful in describing a fictional character or someone you don’t like!
A wimp is simply a timid, spineless person who is too cowardly to stand up for him/herself. The origin of this term may be the sound of a whimper or a whining dog.
A dork is a socially awkward, unstylish person who does ridiculous things, and is not redeemed by any kind of expertise. This kind of character is often seen as humorous, like Napoleon Dynamite, the teen misfit who runs a quirky but successful campaign to get his friend elected class president in the 2004 film. The origin of this word cannot be discussed in a family newspaper!
Dweeb is typically used for an insignificant, inept person. In the eponymous musical running on Broadway since 2016 and now streaming as a film, “Evan Hansen [is] a high schooler crippled by social anxiety who gets caught up in a lie, which turns a dweeb into a hero after the story goes viral” (merriam-webster.com). It has been proposed that this word, which first appeared in the 1960s, may have been a fusion of dwarf and feeb (short for feeble-minded)—in other words, a small dummy. Again, it started with mean intentions but gained its own kind of status over time.
Better to be called a guru or a maven than a dork or a dweeb! But my advice is not to use this latter group at all, except in fun.