April 23, 2015

Horse 1881 - Nerds, Geeks and Boffins: The Three Tribes

Nerds, geeks and boffins - these are three tribes which it is both possible to live concurrently in or singularly and yet there are distinctions. Maybe someone might like to draw a Venn diagram of it all.
By the way, John Venn who was a Yorkshireman was a nerd. I bet that he would have been a right royal laugh riot. He'd have to be a nerd with a paper like "On the Diagrammatic and Mechanical Representation of Propositions and Reasonings" (1880) for which his eponymous diagram was named.
Who the nerds, geeks and boffins? Let's have a look, shall we?

Theodor Seuss Geisel who wrote under the pseudonym Dr. Seuss and was not a real doctor, is popularly credited with coining the word "nerd" in his 1950 book If "I Ran the Zoo". It is a piece of literary nonsense and to be honest I have no idea of what the word was supposed to mean in context, except to say that it sounded nice:
"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!"
For whatever reasons lost in the mists of time, the word "nerd" has settled on the meaning of someone who is socially inept and either studiously boring or boringly studious. As with all words which are decided anti-intellectual, it is also used in the pejorative sense; as a term of abuse.

A look in the OED tells me that the word "geek" is specifically used to denote someone who is particularly skilled with computers. I think that it's interesting that the OED chooses to make the distinction between nerds and geeks but words are fluid beasts anyway and I suspect that the OED needs to do this because part of its job is like the job of an entomologist but for words - it pins them to a board and then writes descriptions about each one.

A third word is even more descriptive and has the most colourful story of all - the word "boffin".
Charles Dickens in "Our Mutual Friend" (1865) has one character called Nicodemus (Noddy) Boffin, "The Golden Dustman", who runs into an inheritance and to cover up his very much working class roots, engages in a plan of hiring someone to read to him in the hope of gaining more intelligence and thus hiding his origins.
In J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Hobbit¹" (1937) there is a family of Boffins living in the Yale who are quite connected to the Baggins' family, of which Bilbo and Frodo are members.
The world of boffins came into their own during the Second World War when they were employed to create and build increasingly complex military technologies. It was the boffins who were responsible for things like radar, the code breaking computers at Bletchley Park and in the United States, the bomb.

It is entirely possible for the three terms to be concurrent to describe a person and it is also entirely possible for the three terms to be separated. I might be a nerd and something of a minor polymath but I don't really know a whole heap about computers² and although I can rip apart an engine in a motor car, I'm not a scientist and have never invented anything,

I quite admire geeks and am genuinely fascinated by boffins but it is nerds who I find the funnest of the three. Geekery and boffinery are mostly too highly peppered with jargon to make conversation palatable in my experience but if you can find some nerds, they are usually excitable about things; that's brill'.

This brings me to the world of comedy. Comedy shows for nerds tend to include things like "Have I Got News For Your?" or even "Argumental" which are more likely to be made by Cambridge and Oxford alumni; "QI" is in there as well.  "The Big Bang Theory" is not because the writing isn't strong enough to stand up on its own and it even admits this with the inclusion of a laugh track and that indicates that the show is downright puerile.
I honestly don't know how it would be possible to write a comedy for geeks or boffins. Is it actually possible to laugh at computers or people who work with them, or a comedy specifically for scientists? If it is possible, I bet that the nerds will write it for them³.

The three tribes (nerds, geeks and boffins) are quite amenable to each other most of the time. Conflict can arise when there is a direct work related issue such as a computer not working or a deadline for some project which needs a widget or gubbin to be built is late but those sorts of issues occur in every workplace.
We do know that even in the very smallest of organisations, there needs to be at least one element of nerdiness or geekery or the organisation will not run. Every firm requires that someone keep the financial records, even if that means hiring someone outside the organisation to do it for them and that most definitely requires nerdiness.

Yet even though society would fail to function without nerds, geeks and boffins and people who are both studiously boring or boringly studious, no-one really celebrates nerds, geeks and boffins. It is the most frivolous professions of players, buffoons, actors, musicians and singers who society rewards with great wads of cash.
It's a good thing that nerds, geeks and boffins don't complain much.

¹Which is so utterly tedious that the only reason I read it, was to say that I've read it.
²I maintain the network at work and can troubleshoot all sorts of lovely issues such as IP conflicts but there's still loads I can't do.
³Tnetennba: Noun.
A word whose function is purely to attract traffic to a website; a gratuitously used keyword whose presence is aimed at attracting the search engines attention and improving the website’s placement in search results.

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