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Saturday, Aug. 16, 2008


Geeks I have known

The meeting itself is not unusual. I have had students seek my consul before — on all kinds of topics.

Like the girl who wanted me to excuse her long list of absences because of the death of her pet parrot. "That bird was like my brother," she wept. It remains the second most ridiculous thing I've ever heard.

With No. 1 being that I accepted her excuse. And gave her an "A." I am a sucker for sob stories. Everyone knows.

But the student with me now has a problem of a different sort.

"Tell me, please," she says. "I have to know. Am I a geek? Or am I a nerd?"

She is not sobbing, yet I am moved. Moved to question her sanity.

"I used to think I was a geek. That's 'cause I'm on the computer all day long . . . except, that is, when I'm in school. I learned the word, "geek," in English class and I embraced it. I would fall asleep at night, whispering, 'I'm a geek. . . I' m a geek . . .' Somehow it soothed me."

"But," she goes on, "The other day I got in a chat with a guy from the States who said I wasn't a geek, I was a nerd. In fact, a five-star nerd. So we quarreled. I surfed the Net to find the proper language to argue my case. Expressions like: 'Drop dead, dimwit!' And he would respond with, 'Spoken like a true nerd!'

"Anyway. . ." Now she swallows. "I feel my identity threatened. You're an English teacher. So tell me. . . Am I a geek? Or am I a nerd?"

I study her a second and then offer my pronouncement.

"You, my dear, are a weirdo."

"That's another one," she says. "Geek, nerd, weirdo — I don't get it. In Japanese, I am just otaku. How come English splits things so many ways? Is it because in America one word won't cover it all? Americans are too strange."

Hey, I feel like telling her, don't forget the British. But now I see the true crux of her problem. It's that word otaku and how it has seeped across cultures.

The term, when I first heard it in the '80s, seemed rather gloomy. Otaku were antisocial types who focused on one endeavor to the extreme. They stayed at home a lot, lost in their obsessions with games, comics or whatever. Female versions might be called fujoshi, but otaku was the word of the day.

Somehow otaku life blossomed and particular people found pride and identity in their intense hobbies. Pop culture — in TV shows and comics — romanticized the otaku phenomenon and otaku jumped from the closet, so to speak, to revel in their cultural fetishes, even basking in the humor thrown their way.

The meaning of the term has since ballooned so that any person who is an aficionado of any endeavor might wear the otaku tag. There are sports otaku, camera otaku, train otaku, movie otaku and zillions of others, including some men who fixate on young bimbos, called "idols" in Japanese. I know a 45-year-old guy, for example, who doesn't let a day pass without checking the Web site of "Morning Musume," a cutie-cute singing group composed of nubile teenage girls.

"And so," my student asks. "Is he a geek or a nerd?"

In this case, he's a pervert. But the point is that the Japanese word otaku nowadays mostly means a "fan." Yet, the word has leaped across borders.

Across the sea the word first caught fire among sci-fi followers as a sort of cyber-nerd, someone addicted to online information. It has since become a popular loan term, mostly targeting those who are nutso about manga, anime or Japan in general.

"When the guy called you a 'nerd,' he just used the word he prefers. He knows nothing of you and nothing of Japan."

"Right. He's a dimwit."

Otaku, nerd, geek — I am reminded of how alive language is, how it can evolve so quickly and that in our information age such evolution is no longer contained within one linguistic group. It flows wherever the Web will take it.

Meaning convenient translations can no longer be locked in place. Language is now give and take on a worldwide level.

"In the end, talk it out and seek a common understanding."

"But I want to be a geek."

"You are what your heart says you are."

"Then I'm a geek. Or maybe a maniac. I like that too."

Of course, she means maniakku, an English loan term that here has been twisted to mean mostly. . . otaku.

"And I'm a devoted maniac," she says before laughing. Hysterically.


She sighs. "This identity crisis has been traumatic. To tell the truth, it's the real reason I've been absent so much."

Uh oh.

"I'm a geek! Can't you give me a break!"

Well, maybe. It depends on if she'll sob.

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