Wonks vs. Nerds

August 26th, 2010

Inside Higher Ed directs us to a couple sites describing American University‘s new branding campaign around the word ‘wonk.’ American has a website offers a description of what the term means, suggests that there are many different kinds of wonks (policy wonks, science wonks, theater wonks…), and draws a connection between the word ‘know’ (which does happen to be ‘wonk’ backwards).

I find the campaign interesting because it’s very much like MIT’s “Nerd Pride” slogan, but even more official and widespread. The various ways that American has tried to lay claim to ‘wonk’ strongly resemble the ways that people have tried to define reclaim ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ down to claiming that there are many “types” of geeks, and explaining meaning through backronyms like “general electrical engineering knowledge” or “knurd” (for “drunk” backwards). Given that American University is based out of Washington D.C. and attracting many students who are quite interested in being described as “policy wonks” someday, the new campaign is a kind of way to signal that it’s producing a particular local flavor of geek.

The Eagle, AU’s student newspaper, features comments from folks who don’t quite appreciate the connotations of this new label. Inside Higher Ed notes, “While some noted the positive associations with policy experts, many others posted comments about the nerdish associations with the word”—which is true, but not quite the whole story.

One “AU parent and marketing maven” suggests in the Comments to that article that the word has nerdy connotations which might prove problematic. When you tally up the responses between anyone who notes the connection to ‘nerd’ (‘geek’ is never mentioned), however, you don’t see much concern with nerdy connotations at all. “[Wonk] essentially means ‘nerd,’ which is fine,” one student quoted in the article said, expressing more of a complaint with the way the branding campaign was conducted than with the actual results. In other words, the complaints I’m seeing aren’t about students feeling stigmatized or insulted, but about concern that the campaign won’t actually work. (And I think you’re going to see that at any school that spends years and millions of dollars on any branding campaign, no matter what the result.)

I don’t know how effective the campaign will be in getting people to stop asking “Which one?” when students say that they’re going to American University. We now live in a safer environment to brand oneself with a nerdy word, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t work ahead of AU. If this campaign can stretch the connotations of ‘wonk’ to imply that it’s a nerd who tries to affect policy or change, no matter what their expertise, and if AU cements a reputation as “the wonk school,” I could see that being a selling point for many students. I think has MIT promoted the concept of “Nerd Pride” more than “Nerd Pride” could ever elevate MIT, but nobody asks for clarification when you say you’re at MIT—and they left other nerdy words up for grabs.


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7 Responses to “Wonks vs. Nerds”

  1. Greg F. Says:

    What about dorks? I don’t believe I am a geek or a nerd, and definitely not a wonk. I am a self proclaimed dork, where do I fall into the equation?

    Dork: Someone who has odd interests, and is often silly at times. A dork is also someone who can be themselves and not care what anyone thinks.
    Source: http://www.urbandictionary.com

  2. Greg F. Says:

    Dork: (http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=dork)

    1. a whale penis

    2. an individual who is keenly interested in and good at mathematics, science, and technology, and applies mathematical and scientific principles to everyday occurrences, while at the same time being loveable and very personable, often having many friends due to wittiness, often loves video games. Not to be confused with nerd or geek or dweeb.

  3. Church Says:

    Greg, you should take a look at this page:
    http://www.geekstudies.org/2007/06/geeks-vs-nerds
    (Though I’m afraid dorks tend to come off badly.)

  4. Jason Tocci Says:

    Church beat me to it. Also worth checking out “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited; ‘dork’ isn’t mentioned there, but the same general principles (about the arbitrariness of meaning) generally apply.

    I do think people tend to use ‘dork’ more to refer to ‘loser’ status than ‘geek’ or ‘nerd’ nowadays, but I do hear people using the term affectionately as well (e.g., a self-identified geek referring to oneself as a dork to humbly make light of insecurities or stereotypes).

  5. Church Says:

    I’ve also heard ‘dork’ used self-descriptively by geeks when in the presence of Alpha-Geeks (the guys who port Linux to their toasters or whatnot.)

  6. hald0ne Says:

    Not related, but on a French website I read:
    http://www.pebkac.fr/pebkac-2958.html
    “(…) C’est du viol sauvage de l’élitisme original accordé au terme…”
    Which means: using “geek” like this is like raping the elitism the term had in its origins.
    I thought it was all the reverse, that it was a term depicting that you weren’t from the elite but from the social low-end and without choosing it (or with people thinking you didn’t choose it).
    Apparently I’m right, and as I read on you website it became less and less negative as computers became more and more popular as well as some entertainment, but I don’t get how the idea of “original elitism” came.

  7. Kooz Says:

    I’m a nerd and proud of it (http://kooztop5.blogspot.com/2012/01/top-5-nerd-credentials.html), but I may be part geek too. Not a wonk though.

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