Reclaiming the Word “Nomad”

my office in Chile, January 2010

Over the years, when I’ve solicited feedback on names for my editing business (finally named Nomad Editorial) and various blogs (including this one), I’ve learned that some people have a negative impression of the word “nomad.”

Editing colleagues, friends, and fellow bloggers have told me that “there is something not entirely positive about the word ‘nomad,’” or that it could be considered a pejorative, “as if nomads were a bunch of irresponsible, homeless, shiftless people who don’t have sense enough to settle down.” (I’m not sure if this was meant to refer to actual nomadic tribes, or the new breed of nomad—or both!)

For someone who’s anything but “irresponsible, homeless, or shiftless,” this is fascinating stuff. It’s left me wondering, Can even a travel-related blog suffer from the use of the word “nomad”? Am I hurting my business by using this word?

Because I’d been told “nomad” might not be sending the right message, I’ve spent far too much time worrying that potential clients might be turned off by my business name or wouldn’t want to work with me once they learned that I travel often and am currently based in Argentina.

Of course I have no way of knowing if some potential clients happen upon my business or blog and leave immediately upon seeing the name or reading a little bit more about me. But when I do have the chance to communicate with people, I realize that my fears are completely unfounded.

In fact, some of my clients never would have hired me if it weren’t for my travel/Spanish/international background. And other clients, upon learning of my whereabouts, respond with something like, “Well, then, I’ve decided I’ll need to deliver the manuscript in person. :)” (though none has ever followed through on that to date!).

Is there a negative connotation of the word “nomad”? Why?

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “nomad” entered the English language in the 1550s and comes from the Middle French nomade, from Latin Nomas, used to refer to “wandering groups in Arabia,” and from the Greek nomas: “roaming, roving, wandering” (to find pastures for flocks or herds), related to nomos, “pasture.”

The origin of “wander” comes from the Old English wandrian, “move about aimlessly, wander,” from the West Germanic wandrojan, from base *wend-, “to turn.”

Have the origins of these words left us with a perception that nomads don’t have an aim or a goal, that nomads move around willy-nilly without having a reason? And is the culture in developed nations so focused on success, on goal setting, that not having a goal is unacceptable?

And yet over the centuries, nomadic tribes have actually had what I consider a very noble goal: they go in search of food for themselves and their animals—what better goal could one have? What better way to adapt than to go where you can find what you need, rather than staying in one place and starving (literally or metaphorically)?

Wanting to know more, I Googled “nomad history,” and one of the first sites to come up was a description of nomads on a kids’ history site. The kid-friendly text provides another perspective: “People living in cities used to think nomads were stupid and lazy, because they didn’t live in houses or work regular jobs or go to school… On the other side, many nomads… didn’t think much of the city people either. Nomads tended to think that city people were wimpy, and also that they were bad, because they had things like fancy dresses and perfume that the nomads mostly didn’t have…”

Hmm, doesn’t that sound familiar? Some things never change: since the beginning of time, people have been suspicious of, and threatened by, those who are different. Does a negative connotation of “nomad” persist because people tend to criticize anyone whose lifestyle is different than theirs?

I’m not sure much can be done to address those who feel threatened by different lifestyles, but we can still strive to reclaim the word “nomad,” showing through our work and our actions that nomads can be as responsible, reliable, and goal-driven as non-nomads.

At the same time, I’ll continue to move about the world, choosing places where I can experience for myself what I can’t find as easily by staying in one place: a different perspective, a new flavor, a unique tradition, a striking vista, or the ruins of ancient history.

Won’t you join me? Let’s show the world all that we have to offer as “nomads”: determined, responsible, successful global citizens who expand horizons and encourage a deeper understanding of our world.

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19 Responses to “Reclaiming the Word “Nomad””

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  1. “What better way to adapt than to go where you can find what you need, rather than staying in one place and starving (literally or metaphorically)?”

    I love this line Amy! It’s the fear of change or of the unknown that so oftentimes keeps people in an unfavorable place. Personally, I’m drawn to the word “nomad,” but I may be biased since I hope to become a part-time nomad myself. :)

    I remember when I was growing up and a new family moved into one of the few rental houses available in our neighborhood. They had lived in many different places and I remember the neighbors whispering about how they were “gypsies.” I didn’t really understand what that meant, and I didn’t care. What I did care about was the fascinating new friend I made, Maria. Her family offered me amazing new foods to try and Maria told me captivating stories of her travels!

    They lived in our neighborhood for about nine months or so, and then they moved on. I’m still grateful for the friendship I had with Maria.

    There is a perspective and understanding of the world that can only be obtained by traveling. If those that haven’t seen or cared about anything outside of their little world are small-minded enough to judge those that are wide-open, so be it. ;)
    Jenny recently posted…Some Inside Scoop- An Interview with Courtney CarverMy Profile

  2. Paul Strobl says:

    Amy,

    You’ve inspired me. As a fellow “Location-Independent Professional,” I’m renaming my business to “Vagabond Inc.”

    How do you think that would look on a corporate expense report?

    ;)
    Paul Strobl recently posted…The Key to a Better LifeMy Profile

  3. Not really sure how nomadism became associated with stupid, lazy people. I want to blame the industrial revolution and colonialism for this, but maybe that’s too pat.

    When I chose my website name, it had to sum up what I was trying to achieve, which is explore new places and open myself up to change.

    Nomadism is about pushing yourself out of a purgatory. Your definitions add something to this discussion. Historically, nomads weren’t useless reprobates. They were people who followed food gathering and hunting patterns to maintain a life they usually had no choice in (because of landscape), but also had to accept and enjoy.

    Many nomadic peoples had some kind of structured society where behaviours and ethics came into play. The only difference is when a season finished, it was time to move where they could re-establish.

    I can see how we might be seen as not serious. I assert that we are serious experience junkies, who can offer wisdom, tolerance and patience to a project.

    People that think inside a box, don’t trail blaze. They fizzle. :)
    Nomadic Chick recently posted…Summer Lovin’ Had Me a Blast Summer Lovin’ Happened So FastMy Profile

    • Amy says:

      Thanks for chiming in, Jeannie! In your experience, do you think there is indeed a negative view of nomadism today, or were you responding to the quote I mentioned?

      I get the impression that that “stupid, lazy” definition of nomads was a description from longer ago than the industrial revolution, but the kids’ history site where I found that quote doesn’t specify.

      I do think there is (and perhaps always has been) a tendency, on the part of “city people,” as they’re called in that quote—those with steady, stable jobs, homes, etc.—to determine that anyone not slaving away in an office like they are must be “lazy.” Anyone not following a traditional education path must not be getting a proper education (and is therefore “stupid”). Of course I don’t agree with any of this; just trying to figure out where it comes from!

      • I meant to reply to this last week. Sorry! I’ve personally never experienced a negative association to the term “nomad”.

        I completely agree with you that anyone charting an untraditional route is lumped in with lazy, driftless folks. People operate on criticism when met with something they don’t understand or relate to. Maybe that’s where it comes from?

        The best way to reclaim the word might be to associate nomadism with exploration. That is what we are doing after all!
        Nomadic Chick recently posted…Same Destination Different ExperienceMy Profile

  4. marianney says:

    Funny. I don’t think it’s negative at all. But then again, I don’t see anything wrong with a roving lifestyle either. I think you are right though that many (not all) people are afraid of what’s different. Eric and I were just talking about that the other day when he told me he was going to stop telling people that we were moving to Costa Rica. He said that people looked at him like he was either crazy or lying. I was thinking about writing a post about that, but obviously haven’t yet ;)

    That said, it’s interesting how your fears about your business name were unconfirmed and that it actually might have attracted like-minded poeple to work with you. You have to remember that when you are “marketing” to people, you can’t please everyone and you can’t market to them all or you’ll never be successful. It’s when you find a niche and go for it, that you become successful amongst that niche. And what more could you ask for? Working with people who understand where you’re coming from is an amazing thing!

    • marianney says:

      Oh one more thing, do you have Google Analytics installed on your website? That would show you what your bounce rate is (people that come to your site and leave without clicking through).

      • Amy says:

        Yes, I do (on both sites), but I don’t really have a handle on what’s a good bounce rate to shoot for! Have you seen anything that talks about that? I did a search and seem to recall not coming up with anything very concrete.

        • marianney says:

          You know, I don’t think there’s really a golden number, but if your rate is high, then that means people are coming to your site from whatever landing page they clicked on and realizing it’s not relevant to their search. I guess it’s probably best to keep your bounce rate below 50% but that’s really kind of arbitrary.

    • Amy says:

      You’re right—whether people think “nomad” is negative or not really has to do with the lifestyle (or stereotype) they attach to that word, and their opinion of it. If the word conjures up visions of freedom and travel, and that jibes with someone, it’s all good. If it conjures up images of laziness and irresponsibility, that’s where the problems come in, I guess, and it’s a shame!

      It’s really like anything else—it’s unfortunate when anyone jumps to conclusions without knowing the full story (or getting to know the person behind the label).

      I want to do everything I can to make sure the word “nomad” isn’t automatically presumed to be a negative thing. There are plenty of people who are lazy and irresponsible, nomads or not, but I’m not one of them—and being a nomad doesn’t inherently change that!

      I can empathize with Eric’s feeling that people think he’s crazy or lying when he shares your plans with them. But that’s OK—it’ll be all the better when you show them one day that you really meant it. :)

      Absolutely, working with people who understand where you’re coming from is awesome. I’m working on a hiking book right now and when the author first contacted me, I mentioned that I’d hiked the Inca Trail, and she said, “A hiker-editor, exactly what I was looking for!”

      • marianney says:

        “I can empathize with Eric’s feeling that people think he’s crazy or lying when he shares your plans with them. But that’s OK—it’ll be all the better when you show them one day that you really meant it. :)”

        EXACTLY!

        That’s awesome about that author contacting you about the hiking book. See? perfect!

  5. Forest Parks says:

    In many ways the internet is the thing that changed it all.

    Nomadic tribes have always been something to respect in my opinion but I can see why others may not have liked the seemingly aimless individuals who decided to travel the globe getting by on odd jobs, meaning the old school traveler (I have respect for them just understand the societal down looking).

    Now things are digital and “digital nomad” is being appropriated for a number of situations the word will lose it’s bad connotations and it’s going to be a more normal thing to aspire to in my eyes…. Of course we are not there quite yet!

    I do know that people in family probably wonder when I may finally settle down and some people just don’t get that I don’t have to!

    Nomadtopia drew me t. your site, no repulsion here :).

    • Amy Scott says:

      Thanks for your comment, Forest! You’re exactly right: there are people who might not understand the lifestyle or find something negative about it; probably always have been and always will be. But by reclaiming the word “nomad,” I decided I wouldn’t let that stop me–and that the people I really want to connect with and work with won’t be turned off by that word (and even better, will be turned on by it!).

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  1. [...] her life.Are you proud to be a nomad, like this copyeditor in Buenos Aires at Nomadtopia, who here reclaims the nomad label for its positives. Nomads aren’t shiftless and irresponsible, they’re flexible and [...]

  2. [...] you proud to be a nomad, like this copyeditor in Buenos Aires at Nomadtopia, who here reclaims the nomad label for its positives? Nomads aren’t shiftless and irresponsible, they’re flexible and [...]



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