My friends always use "nerd" to describe an intelligent person, but when I searched its meaning online, I found that it's not really a good word.

"A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious."
Oxford Dictionaries

I've become so confused with this word.
Is it an insult or a compliment?

  • 3
    How much research have you done? Nerd has another meaning.
    – Mick
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 17:04
  • 3
    So who are you going to believe? The dictionary, or your friends? (are they native speakers, btw?). But you should have noted the second definition from the same source: a single-minded expert in a particular technical field (i.e. - a geek). Personally, I don't think that particularly implies "intelligent", but perhaps that's the way your friends understand the associations. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 17:05
  • 4
    Heavily related: What is the meaning of the word “Geek”?
    – KRyan
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 19:47
  • 2
    As the joke goes, its only ok if they say it about themselves.
    – marsh
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:46
  • Context and intent are both important here; "nerd" can be an insult, a compliment or somewhat "neutral".
    – Shaggy
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 7:27

5 Answers 5


If they are referring to an "intelligent" person like you say then they most probably mean:

a person who is extremely interested in one subject, especially computers, and knows a lot of facts about it — Cambridge Dictionary


I'm a real grammar nerd.

So, no it is not in the bad or negative sense but you still have to be careful with this word some people might find a bit offensive to be called a "nerd" especially when this word has a first definition that is kind of negative.

  • 19
    It used to be more offensive than it has become. Nowadays it borders on being a compliment, in the right context.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 18:02
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    This is one of those terms that is generally positive when applied to oneself, but probably isn't safe to apply to others without careful qualification. For example, "You like sitting up late at night debating the merits of descriptivism? You're my kind of nerd!" would be OK, but "You're such a nerd!" without any additional context might (still) be taken as something of an insult.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 20:16
  • This may be local to my area/social circles, but oftentimes "nerd" is used as a term of endearment used with your closer friends. E.g. Saying "What's going on, nerds?" when greeting a group of friends. I personally haven't heard it used negatively since I watched Revenge of the Nerds in middle school (early 2000s).
    – user43841
    Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 20:18
  • 1
    Personally I found it offensive when used by a US senator even when I agreed with his argument Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 20:31
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    @Pants: that's almost certainly local to your area, because to my ears (as a self-confessed nerd on many topics), it sounds really weird to refer to your friends collectively as "nerds" in the example you gave.
    – flith
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 5:50

Nowadays it can be good or bad. In the past it was inherently bad, but it has undergone the phenomenon of reappropriation, which causes insults to become a "badge of honour" for the insulted group.

In my personal experience, nerd was an insult most (~ 90%) of the time until the mid-late 2000s, when the concept of a "nerd culture" became surprisingly popular. Of course, nerd as "person who follows nerd culture" and nerd as "person who studies too much" do not always overlap.

  • 5
    Which might have something to do with the large amounts of money some of us make in tech :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Oct 28, 2016 at 3:52

I don't agree nerd is restricted to intelligent.

A nerd can use the n word to describe themselves but other people should not.

A nerd can say he is a nerd pack like me.

As a non nerd there are so many ways to express without using the n word. He/she is into computing. He is a car racing enthusiast. All she can talk about is medicine.

He is cryptography nerd from MIT that works for the NSA is OK.

It clearly does not have the strict negative connotation of the other n word. Just making a silly comparison.


In some language communities, "nerd" is a loaded word; for example, when used to describe a boy or man, nerd can carry connotations of being easy to push around and/or sexually frustrated. In some language communities, it's basically considered inoffensive; but unless you want to risk offending the other person, I don't think this a good term. And I think that, when speaking to men especially, it's safer to assume that the other person considers themselves "dominant" (not like a bully; more like, someone you don't f**k with), so best to choose language that doesn't convey a disconnect between how you're viewing the other person and how they view themselves. This applies w/o much qualification when talking to women, too; if you're talking to a woman, for example, keep in mind that she may well be elected in as a parliamentary MP one day, or become the CEO of a major corporation, or end up owning a large and highly successful business, etc. Such a woman may not appreciate being called a "nerd", I think.


A nerd is someone with a drive to study. The driver can exist for any of a bunch of different reasons. There are also different areas of focus. Eventually, though, a nerd, in order to be a nerd, must have a certain "love of the subject".

And then there are shy nerds, who will cringe upon hearing the word, and less shy nerds, who will openly affirm, part of their identity, as a nerd.

For a reference and idea, please see the movie T.G.I.F by Katy Perry, which might be able to give you some ideas about why one would be, or want to be, or end up being, a nerd.

  • This doesn't answer the question, which is whether the word is an insult or a compliment.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 2:52
  • Add I said obj the comments below the original post, it is not a matter to be known by the person issuing the word. It's all about how the taker takes it. Commented Oct 31, 2016 at 7:36

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