7

...That is, a word meaning someone with deep and specialized knowledge, and could be used either as a badge of pride:

I'm a huge Linux nerd. I helped reoptimize some of the photonal decalcifiers for Intel CPUs.

...or a mark of shame:

Ugh, you're such a nerd. Stop going on about your kernel!

(Those aren't the best examples, but I think they get the point across)

I'm looking for something from Classical or Medieval Latin, but if there's a neologism with a similar meaning, I'd be interested to know.

The context is a person mildly swearing at another person under their breath after they geek out about arcane tech, then the other person turning around and saying something along the lines of, "I sure am a nerd!" except with a few more words that you didn't know unicorns could say.

  • You tagged your question "classical/medieval Latin" but mention "tech." Are you looking for a cultural equivalent from that period or for a term for the current phenomenon? – brianpck Sep 26 '16 at 13:03
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    Also, since it's bound to come up: xkcd.com/747 – brianpck Sep 26 '16 at 13:03
  • @brianpck The cultural equivalent. – Nic Hartley Sep 26 '16 at 13:31
14

Perhaps graeculus, often translated as Greekling?

It refers to Greeks who held positions of some import in Roman society due to their education and higher learning yet were considered too Greek to actually be considered proper Romans and, therefore, part of Roman society. It was also used to mock those Romans who exhibited a taste for Greek language, learning and customs, most (in)famously, of Hadrian in the Historia Augusta but also of Claudius in the Apocolocyntosis (see section 5).

The diminutive suggests a pejorative, as does its use in context (for example, the graeculus esuriens in Juvenal, Satires, 3.78 or almost anytime Cicero uses it!). The animosity inherent in the term seems to lie in the resentment of the erudition and cleverness of the Greek. This is perplexing as Greek literacy was considered cultured and elegant among Roman elite. Indeed, Cicero seems to use graeculus to mock Verres’ lack of authentic Greek learning (Against Verres, speech 2, book IV.127 – quite funny in its scathing sarcasm so I include a link: Against Verres). It has also been debated whether the use of graeculus to label Hadrian was a compliment or an insult.

Nevertheless, I don’t know if someone would lay claim to the label graeculus as a matter of pride. Perhaps for a successful, well-educated Greek in Rome, appropriating the term ironically as a marker of his Greekness could be an act of self-affirmation. Macrobius (who was possibly Greek himself) seems to use graeculus in an almost affectionate way. See the Saturnalia VI.26, for instance, when a guest exclaims “εὖγε, graeculus noster!/Well done, our little Greek!” after a very erudite exposition of the nervous system without any apparent malice, and also at II.31.

Thus, graeculus could perhaps encapsulate the idea of someone with great erudition and skill but on the outskirts of society. Further, its use as a pejorative or a compliment seems to lie in the eyes of the beholder (so to speak). Of course, it is also a racial epithet so perhaps not quite what you’re after. Even so, I thought it an interesting possibility so persevered with the research!

  • Welcome to the site and thank you for the interesting answer! – Joonas Ilmavirta Sep 27 '16 at 10:16
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    I think I like this the best: it's a great cultural parallel! – brianpck Sep 27 '16 at 13:14
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    The other words are great for general put-downs as nerd was back in the day, but only this one I think really captures the cultural parallel. – C. M. Weimer Sep 27 '16 at 21:50
6

In his Conversational Latin for Oral Proficiency (with which I am otherwise completely unfamiliar), John C. Traupman proposes inconcinnus, which is admittedly rare but has classical attestations. Lewis & Short glosses it as:

inelegant, awkward, absurd

I would also cautiously advance ineptus as a possibility:

unsuitable, impertinent, improper, tasteless, senseless, silly, pedantic, absurd, inept, without tact

Both words figure in Cicero's definition of an ineptus, in which he paints a picture of someone with no knowledge of social norms who wants to show off in a verbose way:

qui aut tempus quid postulet non videt aut plura loquitur aut se ostentat aut eorum, quibuscum est, vel dignitatis vel commodi rationem non habet aut denique in aliquo genere aut inconcinnus aut multus est, is ineptus esse dicitur. (Cic. de Orat. 2.17)

(N.B.: multus here means "prolix"--I learned something new today!)

Both words are obviously pejorative in a way that modern-day "geek" or "nerd" are not necessarily. They emphasize the lack of a certain kind of knowledge rather than excellence in another kind. Honestly, though, the "nerd" indicates such a localized cultural phenomenon that it's notoriously difficult/impossible to translate: see this Language Log post for an enlightening discussion of attempts to find an equivalent for the word in Sinitic languages, for instance.

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    Ooh, I like this answer -- but being an ineptus or inconcinnus doesn't seem like something that could be seen as both an insult and praise, which is basically the whole thing I'm trying to get at. – Nic Hartley Sep 27 '16 at 3:27
  • @QPaysTaxes Bear in mind that for many of us, when we were kids, nerd was definitely not praise, nor was geek, dork, and dweeb. It'd be like Roman kids going around saying, "Tam stultus sum!" Especially when you consider the etymology. – C. M. Weimer Sep 27 '16 at 21:16
  • @C.M.Weimer you're right. I don't think "praise" is the right word -- it's more of an insulting word intentionally repurposed to mean something good to the insulted people, as they decided not to shy away from but accept and be proud of their label. – Nic Hartley Sep 27 '16 at 21:31
  • For what it's worth, I find a lot of Traupman highly suspect. The stuff in chapter 12—everyday locutions—is great, but the rest is a crap shoot. – Joel Derfner Sep 30 '16 at 5:16
6

Coming at this from the opposite direction, the first word I think of is artifex (-icis, m/f). It refers to a person who is highly skilled and knowledgeable about a specific topic, but not necessarily in a good way. An artifex is capable of twisting and controlling and manipulating something, whether it be marble and paint or the mood of a crowd.

Here's a positive example from Aeneid 1.455:

artificumque manus inter se operumque laborem
miratur, videt Iliacas ex ordine pugnas...

He sees the battles of Troy all in order, and marvels at the skill of the crafters and the effort of their works...

But it was also an epithet of Odysseus, for example, when Sinon is explaining how he was chosen as a sacrifice (2.125):

hic Ithacus vatem magno Calchanta tumultu
protrahit in medios; quae sint ea numina divum
flagitat. et mihi iam multi crudele canebant
artificis scelus, et taciti ventura videbant.

Here Odysseus brought out the seer Calchas among them, amid great commotion; he demanded to know from him what the will of the Gods might be. And already many people were cruelly predicting that schemer's wickedness, and were foreseeing what was about to come.

I hesitate to call it a real translation of "nerd", since it doesn't imply anything about social awkwardness—quite the opposite, in fact. But it's a word implying specialized skill or knowledge, which can either be a compliment or an insult depending on context.

  • In an ecumenical spirit, how 'bout artifex inconcinnus :) – brianpck Sep 27 '16 at 13:10

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