And then, in 2009, GQ's Ana Marie Cox (then of The Guardian), started using the hashtag #nerdprom to refer to the thing on Twitter. And then, everything became garbage.*
That this happened in 2009 is not a surprise. That year combined a critical mass of journalists on Twitter with a popular new president. The dinner went from hosting an unpopular incumbent in a world with (almost) no Twitter to featuring one of America's hottest celebrities in a room filled with people who'd spent the 40 hours prior to and following the event chatting with each other on social media. The D.C. world suddenly had someone that could lure real-life celebrities. The WHCD had become the cool ticket.
Meaning that it was actually the worst moment to start calling it "nerd prom." It's like the cheerleaders and football team suddenly joining the chess club to burnish their college credentials. The chess club itself is no longer for nerds, but all the cool kids get to pretend it's a nerdy endeavor. Win-win, except for the nerds.
The Post has been keeping a list of those who have been invited to attend the event by media companies (including the Post, which is a great company and does good work). We've included it at the bottom, assessing the nerdiness (as objectively as possible) of each invited attendee on a scale from 1 (George Clooney) to 10 (George R.R. Martin).
But now consider this sentence: "Cosmopolitan magazine invited TV's Billy Eichner."
Billy Eichner is not a nerd. He is a dork, and he yells a lot, but he is a celebrity with a TV show. His knowledge of pop culture is impressive, but it is not nerdy. But moreover -- in what universe is Cosmopolitan nerdy? Cosmo is the literal embodiment of what it takes to be cool. It is called cosmopolitan, a word that itself implies the opposite of nerdiness.
There are two groups largely missing from that list, by the way. The first is the journalists. Most of them aren't nerds either. Is Jake Tapper a nerd? Is Bret Baier a nerd? Even Chris Hayes and Melissa Harris-Perry (who, I admit, I don't know whether are actually going) are not nerds, really. We'd give them both a 6 on our scale. (Well, maybe Harris-Perry is a 7.) The other missing group is the elected officials. Now, many of those are nerds. But let's see how many of them make it into the post-party photo spreads.
In 2013, Politico's Roger Simon said that the term "nerd prom" was used mockingly. That could not be further from the truth. It's the braggiest of humblebrags. The goal here, in the eternal, unhappy way of D.C. trying to prove itself, is to imply that attendees are savvy wonks who had to be dragged away from their statistical analyses of Jeb Bush's record as governor, cleaned up and made to have a free meal. "We're just nerds trying to have some fun," we can see Killer Mike, guest of the Huffington Post, saying to a camera. "I'd really rather be at home reading Sophocles in the original Greek."
Give it up. This isn't an event for nerds, it's an event for people to be on TV and hang out with the president. It's more nerdy than the Oscars, sure. But is it less nerdy than, say, the Daytime Emmys? Probably not. Call it "Washington Prom," or "D.C.'S Big Night Out." Suggesting it's nerdy, though, is like the 40-year-old guy who hears a new slang term six months late and starts using it around his kid. Awkward, wrong and dumb. (But maybe "Fleek Prom" will work.)
We have to note, of course, that this is part of a long trend of non-nerds appropriating the title to seem smart or interesting or in-the-know. Like Anne Hathaway telling Jon Stewart she's a nerd because she plays Scrabble. Like Hollywood overrunning San Diego's Comic-Con.
An interesting footnote there: It used to be that the San Diego event had a cool nickname that ended up getting used for something else. Once upon a time, Comic-Con was called "Nerd Prom."
|Who||Invited by||Nerd score|
|Madeleine Albright||former Secretary of State||CBS News||7|
|Kenya Barris||creator of “black-ish”||ABC||2|
|Bill Belichick||New England Patriots head coach||AOL||4|
|Troian Bellisario||actress||USA Today||2|
|Anita Breckenridge||Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama||Reuters||5|
|Connie Britton||actress||The Hill||1|
|Jean Case||CEO of The Case Foundation||WaPo||4|
|Steve Case||co-founder of AOL and Chairman of Case Foundation and Revolution||WaPo||6|
|Julian Castro||Secretary of Housing and Urban Development J||CBS News||5|
|Anotine Chedid||Lebanon Ambassador to the U.S.||CBS News||5|
|Laverne Cox||actress||Washington Blade||3|
|Tim Daly||actor||CBS News||3|
|Neil Eggelston||White House Counsel||Reuters||4|
|Billy Eichner||Funny or Die||Cosmo||4|
|Tracee Ellis Ross||actress||ABC||2|
|Henri Esteve||actor||CBS News||2|
|Michael Froman||U.S. Trade Representative||Reuters||5|
|James Gorman||Chairman and CEO||Reuters||5|
|Nash Grier||Vine star||HuffPo||1|
|John Hickenlooper||Governor of Colorado||Reuters||6|
|Fred Hochberg||Chairman and President of the Export-Import Bank of the United States||WaPo||7|
|Jerome Jarre||Snapchat star||HuffPo||1|
|Billie Jean King||former professional tennis player||Fox News||4|
|Brody Jenner||reality star||Fox News||1|
|Marcus Johns||Vine star||HuffPo||1|
|Steven Johnson||author and TED talker||HuffPo||7|
|Jeh Johnson||United States Secretary of Homeland Security||Reuters||6|
|Frank Kaminsky||Wisconsin Badgers basketball player||AOL||4|
|Téa Leoni||actress||CBS News||1|
|Jack Lew||United States Secretary of the Treasury||WaPo||7|
|Lucy Liu||actress||The Hill||1|
|Ray Mabus||Secretary of the Navy||The Atlantic||5|
|Brandon Marshall||New York Jets wide receiver||Reuters||1|
|Alanna Masterson||actress||Fox News||2|
|Wendy Mclendon Covey||actress||USA Today||2|
|John Miller||Deputy Commissioner of Intelligence & Counter-terrorism of the NYPD||CBS News||5|
|Michelle Monaghan||actress||The Atlantic||2|
|Bethany Mota||YouTube star||HuffPo||1|
|Tyler Oakley||YouTube activist||HuffPo||1|
|Sean Parker||former president of Facebook||HuffPo||5|
|Tom Perez||United States Secretary of Labor||WaPo||6|
|Samantha Power||United States Ambassador to the United Nations||The Atlantic||7|
|Naya Rivera||actress||USA Today||2|
|Gina Rodriguez||actress||CBS News||2|
|Kelly Rutherford||actress||Fox News||2|
|Jane Seymour||actress||USA Today||1|
|Tim Simons||actor||The Atlantic||2|
|Megan Smith||United States Chief Technology Officer in the Office of Science and Technology Policy||WaPo||8|
|Todd Stern||United States Special Envoy for Climate Change||Reuters||7|
|Martha Stewart||TV personality||Fox News||1|
|Rob Thomas||musician||USA Today||2|
|David Thorne||former U.S. Ambassador to Italy||CBS News||4|
|Michelle Trachtenberg||actress||USA Today||1|
|Donald Trump||real estate magnate||Fox News||1|
|Melania Trump||wife of Donald Trump||Fox News||1|
|Jesse Tyler Ferguson||actor||ABC||1|
|Pete Wentz||musician||USA Today||1|
|Larry Wilmore||Comedy Central host||New Yorker||3|
|Russell Wilson||Seattle Seahawks quarterback||AOL||1|
|Alfre Woodard||actress||USA Today||1|
|Joyce Woodhouse||a.k.a C-SPAN Mom||C-SPAN||4|
|Jeff Zients||director of the National Economic Council||The Atlantic||5|
|Constance Zimmer||actress||The Hill||2|
|Ricardo Zuniga||National Security Council’s Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs||Reuters||5|
Update: I was asked on Twitter how each news organization ranked. That is below.
* Please note: Cox is not to blame for this. You, we, everyone is to blame.