How “Dork” Became a Term of Endearment for a Certain Type of Man
We blame Jim Halpert
If you are a boyfriend who desires a tasteful term of endearment from your partner — something that is silly, goofy and reserved for the most insulated moments of your relationship — you may find that the options leave a lot to be desired. “Stud” carries far too much sexual baggage; it’s a word that can be most frequently found in PornHub video titles. “Champ” has a distinct father-son tang, unless you happen to be a prizefighter. “Boo” is fine, but basically gender neutral, same with “babe” and “hun.” It’s slim pickings! The boyfriend nickname dearth has plagued our culture for generations, so desperate times call for desperate measures. Consider, if you will, the power of “dork” as a term of endearment.
Yes, you heard me. Dork. An insult that was most frequently deployed by Saturday Morning Cartoon villains in the early ’90s, before losing its edge and falling out of fashion entirely. You might think it seems totally ridiculous to find kindness in the word, but take a look at this meme which is currently orbiting through the Twitter grapevine; it may force you to see the truth. A pyramid diagram — like something you’d find in a social studies textbook — is crosshatched by three sections: basic needs, self-fulfillment needs and psychological needs. A single demand dominates all three tiers — “Kisses from a girl who calls you a dork.” The image clicked into my brain like a puzzle piece. Yeah, they have us pegged. As much as it might pain us to admit, “dork” truly is the perfect term of endearment, and that might say more about the modern man than the nickname itself.
“I think it’s popular because we live in a culture where the vast majority of men have a niche interest, whether it’s video games, fantasy football or film or whatever,” says Andrew Fleischman, a lawyer in Atlanta who enjoys the occasional dork ceremony from his wife. “When I make a dad joke, or dance badly or get excited talking about Emperor Constantine, and my wife calls me a dork, she’s no longer calling me, like, an outgroup. She’s basically just calling me a typical man.”
It wasn’t always this way. Yes, dorks have been around for centuries. It’s an appendage of modernity — we left behind the grim foraging, thatched-roof cottages and 50-year lifespans in the middle ages, and with all of that newfound free time, we cultivated a variety of private, enthusiast rituals. (Fleischman mentioned the heavy hitters, but may I add: miniature painting, model trains, day-trading and overnight brisket smoking.) All of these hobbies were sidelined for the sake of our precious social contract; you did not want your dorkiness to freeze over a post-work happy hour with a long soliloquy about the Green Arrow back issues you found at your local comic shop. But something imperceptible shifted over the last two decades, and suddenly dorkiness carried a lot more cache. I’d go as far to say that by the early 2010s, we were in the midst of a bonafide dork boom. “Those interests were a lot harder to cultivate before the internet,” adds Fleischman. “So we still associate them with dorkiness, even though they’re far more common.”
I blame Jim Halpert. If there is a fulcrum upon which the dork renaissance was founded, it was the bedraggled smugness of John Krasinski who appeared on NBC, every Thursday night, for nine long seasons. No man, before or since, had such a hand in normalizing dorkiness — to the point of almost making it sexy. Halpert had bad hair, terrible fashion, and a mediocre job. How did he overcome the sagging realities of his life? By launching a series of elaborate pranks on his eternal rival across the cubicle — oftentimes by leveraging his own various niche, off-hours pastimes. (Remember when he coded a macro that exchanged Schrute’s name for the word “Diapers” on his PC? A masterclass of dorkiness.) I probably do not need to reiterate that Krasinski is six-foot-three and jacked; there are reasons why he became a heartthrob beyond his goober qualities. But still, he at least gave fellow dorks something to aspire towards, which was desperately needed in an era of peak Brad Pitt and The Man Show.
“When we started I tried to project an air of coolness and mystery but as we got closer over time, it became apparent to her that what drove this was actually my deep fascination with many things,” says Alex DeMuth, a 29-year old from Detroit, whose girlfriend lovingly calls him a dork all the time. (DeMuth’s rabbit holes tend to be Star Wars and minor league hockey. You see where she’s coming from.) “She saw a willingness in me to ‘nerd out’, and that became a part of what she loved about me.”
29-year old Star Wars fans can likely remember a time when that element of themselves was not treated with wide-armed acceptance. If you were playing Magic on lunch tables or shoveling out a Dungeons & Dragons group in a basement, then you probably also once felt a strong desire to keep those hobbies well outside of the public view. That was the only way to avoid harassment, interference or, really, any number of uncomfortable probing questions you’re not prepared to answer. That is what DeMuth loves most about being called a dork by someone who adores him — the polarities of the term have been flipped completely. “There is a sense of vulnerability that comes with being called a dork,” he says. “I’m secure enough in my relationship to know that it’s coming from a place of love.”
So please, to any new couples out there in pursuit of your love language, give “dork” a whirl. The best part of a fresh relationship is the way you slowly peel back the curtains, revealing all of the sensitive obsessions that have been bruised and bullied by the travails of youth. There was a time in my life where I owned over 100 designer board games, which is not information I volunteered on the first, second or even third date. However, once you cross the rubicon and everything is laid out on the table, there is something genuinely validating about a proud and open dork — seen and heard by someone who has witnessed every part of our being. At last, all of our basic, self-fulfillment and psychological needs are filled.
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