Geeks may inherit the earth, but may not want to be accused of being good at maths

How are you supposed to express strong feelings without insulting someone's looks, intelligence or ancestry?

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The Independent Online

Some oppressions are worse than others, I would say. David Harding, who made £25bn by using statistics to analyse financial markets, thinks that “geek” is as bad as the n-word. “I find it insulting,” he told The Times.

It was notable that The Times did not agree. In reporting Mr Harding’s comments, it rendered the n-word as “n*****” and a derogatory word for a Jew as “y**”. But it did not print “geek” as “g***”.

Comparing the y-word with the g-word, Mr Harding said: “One is a Jewish person and one is a person who is very good at maths.” But one is someone who might have been killed because of who their parents were, and one is someone who has an arbitrary skill that can be used to make money.

Mr Harding’s taking of offence poses the question of what words are acceptable and why. The very mildness of “geek” or “nerd” might be deceptive. If there are people who find them wounding, even if they are incredibly rich, should we not try to avoid these words?

I was reminded of an unexpected debate in the American media recently about the use of the word “stupid” in argument. Some words, such as “moron”, are offensive to anyone who knows the history of their use in what purported to be the medical profession, but are considered tame by anyone who uses them simply as a synonym for fool. Who is to say which group is right, when moron comes originally from the Greek for foolish?

I have long campaigned against the use of the word “lie” or “liar” in political argument. I think it cheapens debate and reflects badly on the accuser, especially when it is used – as it almost always is – simply to mean that someone else has a different view of the facts. Even if someone uses it properly, to mean a deliberate untruth, I think it better to set out the facts and to allow others to draw conclusions as to motive.

Too often, “liar” is simply abuse. It tries to use a social taboo to make a point. Calibrated breaches of taboos are often used for effect.

This week the Prime Minister caused a stir among the elite of British political journalism simply by using an abbreviation of a swear-word. He said that the Scottish referendum was irreversible, and not like an election in which the voters may be tempted to give the “effing Tories” a kick, which might hurt but the effect of which would wear off.

This was possibly a calculated device, a way of acknowledging the strength of feeling among people who disagreed with him, and trying to turn it to his cause. If so, it suggests some psychological subtlety on David Cameron’s part, trying to turn the power of the taboo against people who would use it against him or his party.

But then, how do you express strong feelings without resorting to insult? Original insult is obviously better than words familiar in conversation that rely on their rarity in formal settings for effect. The late Norman Geras was an unusually polite blogger, but even he had to invent a word, verkrappt, to dismiss arguments with which he did not agree. (It sounds like Yiddish, which I hope The Times would not print as “Y***ish”.)

Those of us without the wit to make up our own insults might turn to the online Shakespearean insult-generator and call someone, for instance, “a pribbling knotty-pated malt-worm”. But almost all abuse depends on saying something rude about someone’s appearance, intelligence or ancestry.

With all that to contend with, I would say that “geek”, now defined by the Collins Dictionary as “a person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject”, is the least of our worries.

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