A Geek by Any Other Name Would Smell

On Language: What We Call Our Bookworms and How Endearing We Find Them

By Philologos

Published March 23, 2011, issue of April 01, 2011.
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Israel went to the polls March 15, not to elect a new Knesset or prime minister, but to choose the winners of the popular reality show “Ha-Yafa v’ha-Khnun.”

Pale Face: Nerds have been the
target of multiple nicknames.
ISTOCKPHOTO
Pale Face: Nerds have been the target of multiple nicknames.

Named after the American TV program “Beauty and the Geek,” “Ha-Yafa v’ha-Khnun” was also modeled on it and has been, in terms of ratings, one of the biggest hits in Israeli television history.

Apart from its sound play on the well-known fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” “Beauty and the Geek” could just as well have been called “Beauty and the Nerd,” “Beauty and the Wonk,” “Beauty and the Grind” or Beauty and something else, since American slang has a large number of disdainful words for bookish (or nowadays, perhaps, computerish), nonathletic, physically and socially awkward young men who are at a loss in the company of young ladies. Although such terms are not wholly synonymous — a geek is clumsier than a nerd, who is less single-minded than a wonk and less obsessively studious than a grind — they overlap in many respects. Most or all of them, though they may have originated elsewhere, have spread and been popularized by American high school and college students in recent decades.

This is not, when one thinks of it, surprising. True, bookish types have always aroused both ridicule and a sense of intellectual inferiority in the average person. Think, for example, of Chaucer’s “clerk of Oxenford” in “The Canterbury Tales,” who “loked holwe and ther-to soberly” and “was lever have at his beddes heed / Twenty bokes, clad in blak or reed, / Of Aristotle and his philosophye, / Than robes riche…” — which is to say in current English that he looked sadly skinny and would rather have had by his bed 20 books of Aristotle and his philosophy, bound in red or black leather, than snappy clothes. A geek if ever there was one!

Yet unless they went on pilgrimages to places like Canterbury, most people never got to rub up against such types until our own age of mass higher education. In times past, the tiny minority of scholars in Western societies lived in religious or academic seclusion while the masses barely learned to read and write, if they did at all. Today, at least up to the level of the bachelor of arts degree, the masses and the scholars sit in the same classrooms. Familiarity, it would seem, has bred contempt and perhaps some unconscious envy.

Historically, Jews were more at home with scholars than were most other peoples, because of both their higher all-around educational level and the fact that their scholarly class — the rabbinate — lived in, rather than apart from, the community. Indeed, rabbinical scholarship was held in such high esteem among them that one would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of disparaging references to the figure of the scholar in premodern Jewish literature. Judging, however, by the number of contemporary Hebrew slang words for geeks, nerds, grinds, wonks, etc., all this has changed.

Khnun is but one of these words. It comes, so the etymologists tell us, from ḥnuna, which in the Arabic spoken by the Jews of Morocco means “mucous” or — to use the more colloquial term — “snot.” “Snot” or “snot nose” is, of course, in many languages, a derogatory word for a young brat (compare Polish smarkacz, French morveux, Spanish mocoso, etc.), and presumably it started out that way in Morocco, too. It was only in Israel, where it first surfaced in general speech in the 1980s, that it took on the meaning of “geek” or “nerd,” just as did its Spanish-derived Ladino counterpart of moco, which appears to have entered Israeli Hebrew at about the same time.

And before that? Probably the earliest word in Israeli slang for a pale-faced, intellectual type was sabon — literally, “soap,” which goes back at least to the 1950s. Whether it’s true, as has been claimed, that this word gruesomely owes its origins to the once-widespread Israeli stereotype of the passive Diaspora Jew reduced to soap by the Nazis, I don’t know, but one can be thankful that it is now rarely used in this sense.

In the 1960s came yoram (stress on the first syllable), from the biblical name of Yoram (stress on the last syllable). Rarely found among Jews before the 20th century, this was a name that became popular in the State of Israel’s early years, particularly among middle-class Ashkenazim, and one that eventually turned into a sobriquet for any overly polite, well-behaved boy more successful at his studies than at other things. And more recently, there has also been gnikht, a word of uncertain origin that might conjecturally be traced to Yiddish gornisht, “a nothing,” and laflaf, a word invented by the Israeli comedian Zvika Hadar in the early 1990s.

The winning khnun? Alex Morozov, a short, pale, pudgy, 20-year-old electrical engineering student from a Russian immigrant family who likes to read classical Russian literature, goes about in bowties, and charmed both the beauty with whom he was paired and Israeli TV viewers with his honesty and self-deprecating humor. “I really am a khnun,” Mr. Morozov has admitted cheerfully, “and never took offense when I was called that.” Having done more to bolster the image of the khnun than any khnun who came before him, he has a lot to be cheerful about.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com


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