The Evolution of the Bookworm


Recently, Merriam-Webster was promoting an article concerning the history of the word “bookworm.” In the article, MW explains how the term “bookworm” actually used to have a derogatory meaning, specifically during the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. Apparently during Elizabethan times, “the self-absorbed, idle bookworm was not esteemed in a society based on one’s gains and accomplishments.” (You’re telling me it’s not an accomplishment to stay in bed all day reading and avoiding the outside world?)

Of course, nowadays, “bookworm” has attracted a few different meanings. I see the evolution of bookworm as twofold during the late-20th to early-21st centuries (aka, during my lifetime). First, during the 90s, I think bookworms were aligned with being geeky, nerdy, weird, and isolated. Take a look at characters in popular TV shows from the this decade: Minkus from Boy Meets World, Steve Urkel from Family Matters, Ross Geller from Friends, even the Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons. Noticing a pattern?  All men. Perhaps only my opinion, and maybe except for Topanga from Boy Meets World, but it seems like most nerdy/bookworm-ish characters in 90s TV shows were played by men–but maybe that’s for another post… Ok, back on topic.

Looking at characters from the 2000s, there’s a different pattern among their personalities. Characters such as Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, Leslie Knope from Parks and Recreation, Alex Dunphy from Modern Family, Jess Day from New Girl, and early Haley James Scott from One Tree Hill all have this factor of being smart, bookish, weird, and yet owning their identities. (I want to throw Marvin “Mouth” McFadden from One Tree Hill as a male entry in this second series as well.) Being the quirky, bookish person turned out to be “cool.” As a 22-year-old female who acquired a taste for reading at a very early age, it was easy to look up to these characters and identify with their personality traits. I’m glad I grew up more in the 2000s and had these female role models (can I call them that?) for inspiration rather than the first series I listed.


At least in my mind, it has become “cool” or “trendy” to be smart and knowledgeable about current events, to do your homework, and to love to read. In addition to TV characters promoting a positive bookworm image, social media has also helped this evolution. From Twitter to Tumblr, from Youtube to Instagram, book-lovers have created niches on each platform where they gush about the best new reads, admire covers’ aesthetics, and cultivate environments that praise learning and knowledge.

I love that book-lovers have embraced being a bookworm. And I love that popular culture has helped to evolve this sort-of stereotype. Read on, Bookworms!


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