Berserkeley Bedazzles: What does Berkeley’s infamous nickname mean to students?

Kevin Chan/File

When I first got my acceptance letter from UC Berkeley, digital confetti streaming across my screen, my friend called me crazy for wanting to go there.

“Berserkeley? Why?” He asked. To him, I would become a “crazed, perpetually high and perpetually protestin’ bizzaro,” attending a university that exemplified all those factors in its nickname.

My happiness at being accepted now sufficiently dampened, I was introduced to the term “Berserkeley” and the notion that the city, and the university by extension, was a bastion of “berserk,” irrational activity. My friend was afraid I would be radicalized beyond repair before he saw me again.

The term “Beserkeley” has a history in popular culture and media lingo. On May 27, 2004, the current top definition for the word “Bezerkeley,” a popular spelling variant of the word, was created on Urban Dictionary. The word as read on the site is defined simply as “Berkeley, California,” as if the name of the city alone were enough to encompass the out-there atmosphere associated with the locale. This definition, by username TeknoTurd, is the first result when you Google this popular version of the word. TeknoTurd also used the word in a sentence: “Let’s go to Bezerkeley and harass some hippies.”

Aside from TeknoTurd’s less-than-satisfying example, there is also a certain tone of inherent judgment associated with the term, especially since it combines berserk, a word that means “not in control, extremely excited or crazy” and “very angry or out of control,” with the word “Berkeley.” In a similar vein, news sites and other media in the past have referred to a certain “quirkiness” associated with the city and the university, with some of these mediums actually employing the word “Berserkeley” in their content when covering city events. But is this a bad thing?

Newsweek notes in a February 2017 article regarding the student-led Milo Yiannopoulos protests: “Yet in the place sometimes known as Berzerkeley, he appeared to have miscalculated the ferocity of the resistance he’d face.” On one hand, this description of Berkeley in terms of Berserkeley seems to paint a somewhat extreme environment.

But Newsweek also implies that there is a certain “ferocity” or strength associated with the word A recent article by The Daily Californian titled Investigating the origins of ‘Berserkeley’ references the Oxford English Dictionary: “Berserk,” the first half of the word, “means a ‘wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage.’ ”

It is with the knowledge that ‘Berserkeley’ has been used to mean simultaneously iconic, quirky and strong that I began to reconcile diverging meanings of the characterization for myself. When I first heard the term in my friend’s mocking rhetoric, it scared me. Even after I confirmed my enrollment, it made me continually question my choice.

I wondered how the other students of UC Berkeley saw themselves in the word — if at all. I set out to interview students in popular campus thoroughfares to get a sample of public opinion.

Certain students I spoke with were not a fan.

“I think the word is a bit tacky,” said junior Quynh Uong. “(It) perpetuates the Berkeley myth that we are all hippies and super weird.”

The majority of the interviewees, however, had positive takes. Perhaps no one says it better than current freshman Rachael Deng, who actually sees the word “Berserkeley” as a reason that encouraged her to enroll.

“When I decided on Cal, I remember reading about (the term Berserkeley) on reddit, and I guess it sort of painted a picture in my mind that all Berkeley students are different in their own way, a bit eccentric,” Deng said. “It gives me an idea that I can be anything I want. Special and unique.”

Her sentiments were echoed by sophomore Areeb Khalfay and freshman Stefanie Richard.

“The word ‘Berserkeley’ reminds me of the word ‘bedazzle,’ which makes me think of Berkeley shining,” Khalfay said, evoking the metaphor of light prominent in the university’s image, from the stars on its lampshade banners to its motto, “Let there be light.”

Richard, for her part, said the word “sounds electric,” characterizing the term as being “full of energy.” Perhaps it’s no wonder that the label is also the name of the upbeat jazz instrumental track by musician Mark O’Connor, the beat of the tune manifesting within its title.

Thinking about the term in this way, one can happily use the word “Berserkeley” as noun, verb, adverb and adjective.

“You could just say this place is Berserkeley,” said freshman Jolen Gomez, commenting on the general state of the campus bustle. I asked if she was proud of the moniker, and she replied yes with a laugh.

The way my friend used the word was the cause of much freshman anxiety, but now, having experienced myself this vibrant atmosphere, I find that I can embrace Berkeley for what it is — berserk, yes, but with a multifaceted collection of meanings. I embrace any and all things quirky in regard to the city, the school, my friends and myself. In the term “Berserkeley,” there is a type of singularity. We own who we are as a group of unique individuals.

There will always be those who dub Berkeleyans Berserkelyans and view them as “hippies” who live in the bastion of liberal brainwashing. But, as inheritors of this moniker, we take the good with the bad. When asked whether or not she thought the term was negative or positive, Freshman Angel Mendoza thought it was both. “But I guess it depends on you as a person.”

Contact Kristen Hull at [email protected]