Thursday, January 20, 2011

Geek vs. nerd

Here is one of my favorite entries from my book What's the Difference?: How to Tell Things Apart that Are Confusingly Close, modified only slightly from its publication version:

What’s the difference between a GEEK and a NERD?

You probably use the words interchangeably, most likely in reference to your boss or your brother-in-law or both. Take note, Judgmental One: this kind of labeling does a disservice to both species. It surely will not be surprising to learn that the Internet is brimming with message board posts debating this subject. Equally unsurprising, consensus is elusive.

A geek seems to be any smart person with an obsessive interest. Despite widespread misconception, that interest does not have to be computers or Star Trek. While those are two of the most visible kinds of geeks, there are also comic book geeks, reality TV geeks, World War II geeks, motorcycle geeks, organic food geeks, politics geeks, and even sports geeks. As such, most of us are geeks of one kind or another, whether or not we admit it. Yes, geeks are more mainstream than previously believed. If you’ve got a passion and a serviceable IQ, you’re loving proof. Geeks like to talk about the object of their affection, sometimes far more than anyone is willing to listen.

A nerd, too, seems to be any smart person with an obsessive interest, but also a lack of social grace. (This correctly implies that geeks can indeed have social grace.) Nerds are uncompromisingly pure, often more comfortable with themselves than non-nerds. They are not wimpy. In fact, they are courageous because they do not give in to the expectations of a superficial society. They are driven to excel academically: nerds are promiscuous studiers. It’s a generalization rooted in truth that they gravitate toward math, science, and technology.

Geeks can blend in, nerds stand out
, though neither craves acceptance. Except for a few stressful teenage years, geeks and nerds have no shame about their classification. While both words were at one time insulting, nowadays they are routinely used as terms of endearment. Geeks and nerds would go so far as say they take pride in these monikers.

Geekdom is a lifestyle choice
and nerddom is quite possibly genetic, though even a cursory check of any decade-old high school yearbook will invariably turn up a nerd who has since beaten biology and blossomed into hunkdom or babedom. Geeks interact with non-geeks, sometimes quite successfully. Nerds prefer to—or have no choice but to—hang with their own kind. Both geeks and nerds can be extroverted, but the effect is different: geeks annoy and nerds elicit (unneeded) sympathy.

There is less diversity among nerds than among geeks. The many geek factions do not necessarily get along, but nerds have the potential to be a unified front. If nerds ever do choose to seek revenge as the 1980s movie imagines, they’d be a formidable force, with or without pocket protectors.


The word “geek” used to have a far more unappealing connotation. Compared to its original definition—a carnival performer who bites the heads off live chickens or snakes—most anyone would be fonder of today’s version.

A commonly cited first appearance of “nerd” is Dr. Seuss’s 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo.


A dweeb is a nerd with an extra piece of tape around the nose bridge of his glasses—in other words, a “mega nerd.”

A dork is a person you don’t even pretend to like, with good reason. Unlike most geeks, nerds, and dweebs, dorks are often stupid, grating, or otherwise unpleasant.
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Karen Romano Young said...

I'm loving this discussion and appreciate your scholarship. With all due respect, I think you're wrong about dork, because I think that dorks are often lovable. They are awkward fools, but sometimes they are fools for the right reasons and sometimes what we love about them is that they are willing to look like fools -- or can't avoid it because they are so intense. What could be more appealing to a girl, for example, than a guy who makes himself a complete dork for love of her? As in the film Crossing Delancey, when Peter Riegert says to Amy Irving, "Go ahead, say it: 'Schmuck, what are you still doing here?'" Say dork instead of schmuck and you get the idea. And they fall in love.

Marc Tyler Nobleman said...

Well played, Karen. And I don't have your science mind, but of course, science does have its limits. It has gotten us to the moon and back and enabled us to transfer organs from one organism to another, yet it may never provide a definitive definition of any of THESE species... :)

Bob Buethe said...

The article does comment on the origins of the word "geek," but it neglects to mention that "dork" (and also "schmuck") were originally vulgar synonyms for the male private parts.