Friday, July 24, 2009

Nerd vs. Geek: Can't We All Just Get Along?

One of my favorite blogs, Wired's Geek Dad, recently ran an item on the differences between "geek" and "nerd," which got my blood boiling just a bit by the time I got to the last paragraph, which read:

So the chief difference between geeks and nerds is social aptitude: geeks have it, nerds don’t. Geeks can, and very often do, fall in love with and marry non-geeks. Nerds, if they find love, it’s nearly always with another nerd. There’s a reason why this blog isn’t called “NerdDad,” and that’s the chief reason. Speaking only for myself, I was a bit of a nerd when I was a kid, but I got better. Now I’m a geek, and proud of it!

What's up with picking on the nerds? Especially when it's coming from a geek? We're neighbors on the Venn diagram; we practically pass sugar to one another over the fence yet here they are perpetuating the "nerd as social leper" stereotype. Here's a thought: maybe nerds aren't social lepers. Maybe we're just selective in our friendships. Maybe that whole sitting alone in the corner with a book thing is really just us saying, "Dude, I don't like you."

And you know what? Even if some of us are shy and get awkward, who the hell cares? That doesn't stop us from having friends or dating "normal" people. Hell, my husband's about as un-nerdy as they come, and we still talk to each other JUST LIKE NORMAL PEOPLE DO.

Beyond the stereotype, I would argue that today whatever lines existed between the terms "geek" and "nerd" are blurring rapidly. Check out TIME Magazine's Nerd World blog and then check out Wired's Geek Dad blog and you'll see they're covering a lot of the same things. Do a quick Google search of sites catering to geeks and nerds and you'll see the same thing: a hybridization of the two social sets. Some geek blogs write solely about computer technology and so do some nerd blogs. If none of us down here in the geek/nerd trenches can distinguish the true etymological difference, then is there really any difference at all? Or is it just some semantic folderol that we toss at each other when we want to feel better about the fact that we can recite "Star Wars: A New Hope" from memory and with improvised special effects. Whatever divisions there once were in the common American lexicon are dissipating and thankfully, so is much of the social stigma associated with both terms.

Still, personally, I'm fine calling myself a nerd. In fact, I debated long and hard on which term to use before starting this blog but in the end, "nerd" won out. Why? Because the term "nerd" infers intelligence, and you know what? I like being smart. Especially for a woman, I think it's important to embrace and flaunt your intelligence. In my mind, being a nerd is about more than pop culture references and liking sci-fi, it's also about intellectual curiosity and a single-minded fascination with the subjects that stir your particular cup of coffee. Nerds have a passion for whatever they like, whether its crafts or astronomy or literature or comics. Ask me something about Roman literature, and I'll happily wax poetic about Catullus or Virgil until you leave the room. That's my OCD nerd self and I'm really OK with it.

So there it is. Go ahead and call me a nerd -- just know I'm taking it as a compliment.

Besides, we shouldn't be fighting one another during Comic-Con, also known as Nerd/Geek Christmas. Even the Episcopalians and Presbyterians put aside their gaping differences during the holidays.


Professor Beej said...

I agree. The distinction between geek and nerd often intersect, with the two terms becoming increasingly interchangeable. Nerd still implies having more of an intellectual interest, while geeks tend to be on the fringes, but that's about it.

I prefer nerd myself, simply because geek has become chic, and what is generally considered geeky these days is outside of the niche that I am carving myself. I love gaming and technology, but the unwashed, disheveled basement-dweller stereotype is far less appealing than the glasses-wearing, high salaried, intellectual one that goes along with nerds.

The two terms are so close in connotation, if not denotation, these days that it's really a game of semantics to even try to differentiate at all.

Bill said...

That's funny, I have the opposite reaction to the two words from Geek Dad. When I think "nerd," I picture one thing, and when I think "geek," I picture an exaggerated extension of that same thing.

Maybe a nerd has seen every episode of every Star Trek series and lines up at noon for the midnight Harry Potter premiere; maybe the geek speaks fluent Klingon and comes to the premiere dressed as Pavarti Patil.

Certainly mean no offense to anyone, as I proudly have elements of both. That's just how I hear those words. :)

Ms. Knitpicky said...

Wow, do I have some choice, profane words for him.

I do not feel that "nerd" is a negative word, and I proudly call myself one--though I will usually argue I'm both a geek and a nerd. I'm intellectually curious, I want to know about everything, and I have certain fandoms and niches I geek out about.

I am socially inept at times, and I'm shy to the point that it can be debilitating, but that's because I'm a shy person and it's who I am. It's not about being some dorky nerd.

And for the record, I am not married to a nerd. I can not believe Geek Dad said that or that he believes that nerds are unlovable. To me, it comes off as his needing to give himself a boost at another's expense that day. He sounds like a tool.

Michelle said...

I actually call myself a geek and a nerd interchangable and have never really given much thought to a difference. Although when I am waxing poetic about knitting or Harry Potter or something like that I usually thinking in terms of "geeking out" and since I'm a female engineer I automatically think of myself as nerdy...
Thanks for the last bit, it made me laugh. I heard friends were at Comic-Con yesterday and was JEALOUS.

Cara King said...

I guess my general definitions of nerd and geek are different from yours, Liz! To me, a geek is very into a particular thing (or many things), which leads to terms like band geek, theater geek, Star Trek geek, etc. Many band or theater geeks aren't into computers or SF or whatever, but they're still geeks--so I think that means that geek does not necessarily have a scientific (or SFF) connotation, or even a bookish connotation. So to me, it implies fannishness of a sort, and enthusiasm, and a lack of conformity.

To me, a nerd is someone who's basically studious...which means there's lots of overlap between the nerd set and the geek set!

I, for example, call myself both a geek and a nerd. (And the guy I'm married to is also both a geek and a nerd.)

BTW, that Geek Dad article sounds just annoying. From what I've seen, actually, nerds make fantastic spouses. Sure, everyone is different, but if I had to characterize nerd spouses I'd say they don't cheat, they listen to you when you talk, they're easy to get along with, and if there are kids, then they're great parents.

But I agree with you that as the definitions of Geek and Nerd are so different to different people, it's silly drawing lines in the sand!

Alexandra said...

I think he's dead wrong that a subtle semantic difference has evolved between geek and nerd; the way I see it the difference is disappearing. I feel like most people these days use geek and nerd pretty interchangeably. I know I certainly do. If I had to make a distinction, I'd have to say geek signified technological expertise and nerd signified studiousness.

Geeks and nerds can fall on either side of the social skills divide. The Geek Dad post just seems to take the fact that geek now has a more positive connotation and run with it, using stereotypes to justify it.

Michele said...

I'm a nerd. Though I've got a computing background, I'm not really into technology except to use it - I don't want all the latest toys the minute they come out.

But I am an intellectual through and through. I get OCD about the things I love (First World War poetry and social history, certain fantasy authors, certain TV shows (not all of which are SF&F ones), etc.)

Then again, I'm perfectly capable of talking to anyone about almost anything - although I'm painfully shy, I have the ability to listen attentively to others and encourage their enthusiasms. It's just that, on the whole, I'd rather read a good book than go out with other people.

Sara Jo said...

For a long time I used geek and nerd interchangably, but I've been corrected by several people that there is a subtle difference. However, Geek Dad seems to have the fine points of the geek vs nerd definitions backwards. It looks like some other commenters use the same definitions I've been taught (I really like Professor Beej's descrption!).

This makes me mad, too! And just because I only date other nerds doesn't mean that I do it because they smell just as bad as I do! I shower! I have a very nice tan, thank you! I used to be a flight attendant for a very perky airline, and you sure as hell don't get hired by them if you lack social skills!


Also it's funny to me that this makes me so mad! lol

Anonymous said...

That's so odd because I've always considered "geek" a derogatory term. I wouldn't call myself one or call anyone else one either. To me it's like the difference between Trekkie and Trekker (Trekker denoting geek in this instance!).

Geek to me is nerd exaggerated. They've gone to the bad place with their nerdiness.

That stuff about nerds (or geeks for that matter) not being able to marry anyone but another nerd/geek is total bs. I married the captain of the hs basketball team. He doesn't have a nerdy/geeky bone in his body!

Jeez, can't we all just get along?!

The Science Manly said...


crone51 said...

I prefer a hybridization. "Neek", or perhaps, "Gerd".

The fact that GERD is an acronym for a common medical condition can be ignored here.

Sarah Blue said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah Blue said...

I've always shunned away from calling myself or anyone a "geek". The reason...My brother informed me when I was in elementary school that the term "geek" referred to a person who bites the head off a live chicken. GROSS! I looked up the wrod, and sure enough! My brother was telling the truth!

I immediately stopped use of the word. And yes, I am older and more mature now, but I still giggle whenever anyone refers to themselves as a geek because I can't help but picture them trying to chase down a chicken to bite its head off. ;)

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see how different people define these terms (and themselves with them).

To my mind, Nerd = highly intelligent and socially awkward. Geek = highly intelligent and proficient in a specialized area.

It's possible to be just one or the other, or to be both in just about any proportions - which can also vary depending on surroundings.

As for someone who's simply socially awkward (with the accompanying tendency to fixate on specialized areas of interest) but minus the intelligence, what you've got there is a Dork.

Sarah said...

So I'm starting to think maybe I was a "band nerd" instead of a "band geek". Anyone who's participated in band knows that there is a lot of studying going on there, trying to learn the music, marching steps, etc. (and of course, I was not only a band nerd...but Queen Nerd..I was drum major...And I played both the French horn AND the trumpet).

But, that was about 15 years ago, when I was in high school. I've since gotten my MA in Counseling, and am working on my licensure. Not sure where the nerd's "lack of social skills" fits in to that profession. Maybe I defy the mold? (or I'm not a true nerd/geek in the first place..ACK!!! I'm a wannabe!!)

Sophia said...

Bill- But what if you dress up as Ginny Weasley? What then, I ask?
In my experience, the people who classify themselves as 'geeks' tend to have very in-depth and specialized interest, whereas that of a 'nerd' is equally in-depth but broader. For example, both a geek and a nerd may have the Harry Potter series memorized or quote lines from Battlestar Galactica or Doctor Who (Oh, how I love ye) but the geek knows what happened in episode 3.12 and the nerd writes fanfiction.(oh, how I love ye)
All this is immaterial, however, as the real point of this comment is to say that I just discovered this blog and am now madly in love with you. Marry me? :p

Thaddeus said...

This post caused my great problems. Why? Because of this line: ". . . just some semantic folderol that we toss at each other when we want to feel better about the fact that we can recite "Star Wars: A New Hope" from memory and with improvised special effects."
This seems to imply that the ability to recite "Star Wars: A New Hope" from memory with improvised sound effects induces in one anything but the most euphoric of experiences. To me, exhaustive knowledge of Star Wars is a point of pride, not shame. I don't know if that makes me a geek or a nerd, but that's how I see it.

Anonymous said...

I never thought that there was such a huge different between nerds and geeks. To me the term nerd implies a level of broad intelligence. Geeks to me tend to know more about areas like gaming specifically but I’m not limiting them to that. In high school I tended to eat lunch with the nerds who were in all my classes and afterschool while waiting for the bus I made friends with the geeks. This naturally was after i took 2 years observing my hopeful friends and telling myself they'll like me about a million times. From this experience I can tell you that both nerds and geeks tend to be very similar and equally friendly of their own kind. I therefore claim both categories proudly.
Also I do not agree that nerds cannot have functioning relationships with non-nerds. I am a full out nerd OCD, social awkwardness and all and my current boyfriend is a metal-head. I think that geeks and nerds aren’t all that different and if we banded together there’s no end to the possibilities.

Aging Hipster said...

Nerds ... Geeks ... Can't we just put aside our differences and gang up on the Jocks?

JusticeRobin said...

Amen to everything here. I wouldn't say I use them interchangeably, but they're close enough that there's no need for Jets-vs-Sharks tensions.

In college we used to debate the fine points of the argument, since we were all of that persuasion it was just a question of one's particular flavor. Nerd denoted intelligence and some measure of social awkwardness, geek denoted an area of particular expertise, and we used "dork" as the more disparaging version-- we had dinner rules against "dork talk" during meals.

Regardless, it wasn't as if any of us was just one of the three. It seems silly to try to divide the uncool kids into the really-uncool and slightly-less-uncool.

Cara King said...

Aging Hipster wrote: Nerds ... Geeks ... Can't we just put aside our differences and gang up on the Jocks?

Good point! I'll second the motion. ;-)

Anonymous said...

I identify with both terms. The women that I know that identify as nerds and/or geeks are incredibly good looking and sexy. There's nothing about them that is socially inept. I think that GeekDad's view of nerds and geeks is pretty stereo typical. People don't fit into neat little packages.

Kafka said...

I don't mean to go off-thread, but where do dorks fit into this continuum? "Dork" strikes me as being one of the first nouns denoting a person of quasi-antisocial behavior to gain an affectionate connotation as one ages.

By contrast, I don't know anyone who would take kindly to being characterized as a geek without a preceding subject specification (i.e. computer geek, statistics geek, lit. geek), and I like to think I travel in a fairly nerdy circle.

Cara King said...

More evidence that these words have different meanings in different areas (or to different people), Kafka!

To me, "geek" is not a very negative word. It might include friendly teasing, or less nice teasing, but it's essentially humorous, and not harsh.

On the other hand, the way I'm used to hearing it, "dork" always seems to pretty much mean stupid or clumsy in some way. It can be a word one uses on oneself (e.g. if I forget a coupon or an address or I do something klutzy, I might exclaim "I'm such a dork!") Or it can be an affectionate insult from a friend ("You forgot to phone your mom on Mother's Day? Dude, you are such a dork.") But in my experience, if it doesn't come from a friend, it's highly rude.

Words are so fascinating...

Eleni said...

Yeah, I think different people have different ideas of the difference between geek and nerd. "Nerd" to me implies intelligence in "nerdy" subjects (e.g., computers, math, science... but even excessive knowledge in history, linguistics, etc. can count). And I think of a "geek" as someone with extreme interest in "geeky" topics (e.g., fantasy, sci-fi, computer games, Broadway musicals). Neither requires social awkwardness--for that I would use the term "dork".

But I know many people use different definitons. To quote John Hodgman in his speech at the Radio & Television Correspondents’ Association dinner, "I'm a big fat geek. And there are those of you who will say, 'Wait a minute, didn't he earlier say he's a nerd? There's a difference between geeks and nerds, of course,' and to you people I say 'Shut up nerds!'"

TLH said...

It has gotten a bit ridiculous that people draw a distinction at all. But, in my opinion, geeks and nerds are perceived to have social problems simply because they are smarter, deeper, and more intellectual than the public at large. And I agree that we are more discerning in our choice of company. Why would we want to demean ourselves by talking to bubbleheads? That doesn't mean that we can't get along with people, we just choose not to.

Unfortunately, we remain in the minority. Therefore we must go out into the world and get jobs and go to stores where normal people will be. (Suppress your gags, they might be watching.)

It took me some time to realize it, but what my grandmother used to say is actually true. "They just make fun of you because they're jealous."


Jules said...

I had a discussion with my roommates about this subject once and this is the conclusion we came to about the nerd/geeks/dorks.

Nerd - smart in one or more particular areas, mainly the maths and sciences. Has some social qualities, but sticks mainly with their studies.

Geek - Geeks are the ones who are fans/crazy etc about one particular area, for example sci-fi geeks, book geeks, they are very sociable but often come across weird, because they are often over the top fans of one or more areas, and often babble about what they're a fan of (this is me on so many levels! LOL)

Dork - socially inept. Why they are I never knew, maybe they have a mixture of qualities.

Anyways, this is what my roomates and I discovered one day, while very bored and looked it up on the intetnet (which also probably made us very nerdy/geeky ;))

All in all I'm proud to be called a geek!

JPH said...

Maybe that whole sitting alone in the corner with a book thing is really just us saying, "Dude, I don't like you."

Yes, please.

I'm with you, the words mean different things to different people. And I do bury my head in a book when I'm around people that I want to ignore, though I am most certainly not a social pariah. Most NerdGrrls really use the whole stereotype to their advantage.

Oh, and I'm married to a construction worker who didn't even own a computer. So yeah, we'll somehow manage to make due without you geek-elitists.

Chanimal said...

"Ask me something about Roman literature, and I'll happily wax poetic about Catullus or Virgil until you leave the room."

If I could become a bigger fan of you, I would. Romans rule. :)

Anonymous said...

I've always defined nerds as academic, geeks as cultural, & dorks a socially inept.

Math nerd
Gamer geek
Science nerd
Comic geek
Techno nerd
SciFi geek

I consider myself a geek and a nerd. I'm a member of the 501st Legion, I play D&D weekly, I love RPG video games, I can do the math to determine how many drops of IV fluids need to be administered to a patient per second to meet daily needs, and I was in the chemistry club in college.

@winterone51 said...

I've always called myself a geek - namely for my ability to act relatively normal in social settings (okay, okay, this was a skill developed post-junior high, but still!) and my love of metal music, gaming and computer stuffs. But it's hard to shake the 'nerd' connotation, too, when I read a lot, write a lot and a self-proclaimed (and occasionally professional) grammar nazi. I abhor leet speak. Is there a term specifically for us hybrids??

@winterone51 said...

Might I add that I've also felt that 'nerd' is a lot more of a negative term than 'geek.' I hate being called a nerd. Does that make me a bad person or just more of a geek? *confused*

Marie said...

This subject's come up a lot lately in my circle of friends... I'm a nerd that gets called a "geek". So, I ended up blogging my thoughts on the differences: . Nerd pride!