I’m finding Sweden increasingly entertaining. I’ve never actually been there, my daughter has made me sit through Mamma Mia too many times and I have recently battled through more IKEA furniture than you can shake a flat-packed bedpost at, but nonetheless, my affection for the country grows. Purely linguistically, that is.
Earlier this year, an edict suggesting the creation of the word Hen as an asexual pronoun caused an international stir. Now, language has once again proved deliciously controversial and prompted wider questions about whether English should follow suit.
The dispute is over the word ‘Nerd’ in the official dictionary of the Swedish Academy, the Svenska Akademiens Ordlista. The definition, “a simplistic and ridiculous person, dork”, or various translations of the original “enkelspårig och löjeväckande person, tönt” has caused anger among the United Nerds of Sweden (OK, I’m not sure that such an organisation exists, but wouldn’t it be great if it did).
Anyway, more than 5,000 people have now signed Nörduppropet, an online petition arguing that the definition needs to change to reflect the drive and commitment of the average nerd, and the page is swamped with positively-spun alternatives which stress the hard work, dedication and zeal of nerds around the world.
So is the definition fair, and should we be similarly bashing the doors of English dictionary makers to make them revisit their definitions? Let’s have a look. While the Oxford Dictionary has a sense of “a single-minded expert in a particular field”, its primary definition is “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”. And dictionary.com is not much better, with “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person”, though it does also have the computer nerd sense.
Of course we are not going to start campaigning to change this. The reason? The definitions are accurate. Nerd is a pejorative word. While it undoubtedly covers the hard work and dedication of large numbers of people, and the world would be different if it wasn’t for the work of computer nerds who have created the technology we live by today, the sense of social inadequacy is just as much a part of the meaning as all of the positive connotations. I think the petition suggests that people don’t really like admitting that about themselves. There is nothing wrong with calling yourself a nerd, but in order to do it positively, you have to be slightly tongue in cheek about it and admit that it carries negative as well as positive connotations. I will freely admit I am a word nerd, which makes me frankly irritating at times. However, I don’t see myself ever signing a petition to change the meaning of a word when it has been rendered accurately.
Sweden’s dictionary makers perhaps need to add an extra sense to their definition to cover the hard work. But if they were to completely change the meaning, it would lose its quintessential nerdiness, and indeed accuracy. And I don’t think nerds would ever really stand for something that wasn’t absolutely correct.