I've been thinking about this off and on for months now, but it didn't really crystallize into anything until the last couple of days--I'm not even sure it's done yet, but I want to get it out there anyway.
It seems to me that the definition of the word "nerd" has significantly broadened recently. When I was a kid, the word dealt with a pretty limited subset of people--hyper-intelligent in one subject, socially inept, physically clumsy, almost always male, with a complete lack of fashion sense or style. Their appreciation of art was limited to either fantasy or science fiction, theremin music or lutes. Sports was assumed to be a waste of time for these folks.
That's changed, I think, to the point where the nerd tag can be attached to any specialist in a particular area of cultural knowledge, even the most mainstream areas--it's completely possible to be an "American Idol" nerd now, for example. Tony Kornheiser is one.
Yesterday, on Coates' Open Thread, a commenter named Cash asked, in the context of passing, if as kids, other nerds had taken up interest in activities or subjects that hadn't really interested them in order to seem more normal or mainstream.
I spent a lot of time in my childhood and adolescence being teased and occasionally knocked around for being a bookworm/comics fan/Tolkien nut/D&D player. I also spent long hours of reading up on NFL/MLB history and practicing my jumper, but I sometimes wonder how much of that practice and dedication was done out of a sincere love of sports and how much was done out of a desperation to be accepted by my less nerdly peers.I was already an outsider with no hope of ever being accepted as anything other than a nerd--being a bespectacled Jehovah's Witness who loved to read and had no tact will do that to you--so I think the interest I took in more mainstream fare, like sports, was real. I wasn't particularly good at any of them, but I liked taking part, even if it meant my glasses were near-broken all the time. (You want to know what innovation really changed the quality of my life? Lenscrafters--but that's another story.)
And that's carried over into my adult life as well, I think. Of course, it's easy to be a nerd now. I work in a university English department--you've got to fly the Nerd Flag way high to stick out of a group of people who can quote page after page of Shakespeare from memory or who can tell stories of the personal disagreements between various Romantic poets. No wonder I feel at home in this world. In fact, my answer on that thread noted that I'm more likely to cover up my mainstream tastes than my odd ones--I'm fine geeking out about poetry or science fiction, but don't talk much about NASCAR at work. And I'm not even a NASCAR nerd, though those unquestionably exist.
This is what I'm talking about, I guess--"nerd" has come to encompass "fan" to some extent. Anyone who becomes obsessive over a subject can become a nerd for that subject, especially if he or she shows off that encyclopedic knowledge in an audience of non-fans, or worse, if there's a fellow-traveler in the group and the two veer off into an esoteric, jargon-filled conversation that leaves everyone else wondering what the hell just happened. It doesn't matter if the subject is World of Warcraft or the Dodge Hemi, Doctor Who or VORP--show off that knowledge in a group of lay people and you're a nerd.
But that doesn't cripple you socially like it might have in the past, because on some level, I think enough people have embraced their inner nerds that we're not afraid to dork out on occasion. I think the computer generation coming of age has helped a lot, and it might be interesting to see how the nerd as a character on tv and film has morphed over the last thirty years or so to become more mainstream. The continued rise of identity politics also might have something to do with it--as more minority groups celebrate their differences, that gives a sort of permission for everyone to come out about their joys and passions in a way they might have felt pressured to hide before. I wish I had the time to look at it closely myself.