Dear word sommelier: When should I call someone a nerd, and when should I call someone a geek?
I ought to be a reasonable authority on this, since I’ve been something of a nerd and a geek for pretty much my whole life, although in recent years I’ve become socially adept enough, and learned to dress myself well enough, that my status has occasionally seemed questionable. But my wife still calls me a “sexy geek” and many of my readers call me a “word nerd,” so I guess I still meet the criteria.
But what are those criteria? They’ve shifted during the course of my life. When I was in high school in the early ’80s, geek was really a rather insulting term – I tended to think of some skinny person who couldn’t dress himself properly and had no social skills, or at least no non-repugnant ones.
I do think the phonaesthetics of the word, including the articulatory gesture it involves (mouth spread wide as though you’re trying to swallow something unpleasant and slimy, and the tongue’s double-touch at the back of the mouth reinforces that), had some influence on my sense of it. It was also commonly bruited about that the term originally referred to someone who bit the heads off live chickens. (The correct term for that is actually
Alice Cooper Ozzy Osbourne. Oh, sorry, that was a bat.) In fact, geek was used as a name for sideshow freaks of various sorts, especially those who ate nasty things; its origins seem to be a Low German word for “fool”, via Scots English. Somehow it came to be transferred to what Brits call swots and anoraks. But with the rise of computers as a major social tool and necessity, those kids you used to insult have turned out to be very valuable: the ones who are immoderately interested and expert in things that most people find flummoxing and perhaps a bit distasteful. It’s sort of revenge of the geeks.
Wait! The movie is Revenge of the Nerds! So why is it that we tend to use geek more than nerd for these kinds of people now? When I was in school, nerd was what you called the smart kids who weren’t smooth socially but were well-intentioned and knew all sorts of stuff that everyone else would never know. Nerds dressed for function, not looks – pocket protectors, tape on the glasses – and were fascinated with things that made other people’s eyes glaze over. And you know what? I still think of nerds that way. Nor am I the only one. I think of the YouTube videos by NurdRage (yes, a different spelling), in which various chemical and other physical stunts are shown – cool lab stuff. Cool, that is, if you like to see, for instance, how you can make flowers glow in the dark, or use a chemical reaction to cause gallium to beat like a (small and fast) heart.
Nerd is a 20th-century term, possibly coming from nert, a slangy variant on nut. It’s a softer word, with a nasal sound characteristic of many a nerd’s speech; it stays near the tip of the tongue but uses that syllabic /r/ for its peak, which may seem intense or ineffectual. It seems suitable for something ineffectual and without sharp edges. A possible prime vector for the word is Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd is a kind of exotic critter. Which, come to think of it, nerds still are, sorta. (Nerds are also a kind of candy: tangy, crunchy sugar nubs sold under the Willy Wonka brand. Could you imagine a candy called Geeks? Me neither.)
Why, then, has geek taken over? It seems that nerd has retained the sense of “an intellectually inclined person without social skills” and geek has kept the sense of “someone who has an abnormal amount of knowledge and interest in a certain topic” – as tvtropes.org points out, “There can be such a thing as a Fashion Geek, someone who knows a lot about fashion and is pretty obsessed with it. A Fashion Nerd, in contrast, would be completely unaware that stripes and plaids are unmix-y, and wouldn’t care, even if you told them why the two don’t mix.”
I would add that, while sexy nerd remains something of an oxymoron, the collocation sexy geek is reasonably current – Wired magazine has even had a “Sexiest Geek” contest, and you can see a buxom devochka discourse on geek and call herself a sexy geek at www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9jlefnXKyQ. As she points out, intelligence has become very popular, and that has caused geek’s stock to rise somewhat.
But I find that the distinction is not altogether clear cut. In some cases the sound matters – for instance, where word geek might seem natural, rhyme helps word nerd to prevail. Often, though, personal proclivity comes into it. Of course, not everyone cares that much; if you have strong opinions on the difference very much, then, as the great nerd (or is it geek) comic strip xkcd diagrams, you are a nerd, a geek, or both: xkcd.com/747/.
But speaking of Venn diagrams (since you’re a geek, a nerd, or both, you know that intersecting-circle diagrams are Venn diagrams), there is one currently making the rounds that purports to set the matter straight on the difference between not just nerd and geek but also dork and dweeb: www.buzzfeed.com/scott/nerd-venn-diagram. It’s not bad, but I don’t find that everyone sees it exactly that way. I polled editors and people on Twitter and got a mixture of responses, among which were the following distinctions:
– nerds are less intelligent than geeks
– nerds are much bigger losers
– on Big Bang Theory (wondering how long it would take for me to mention it?), Leonard is a geek but not a nerd, while Sheldon is both
– nerds are antisocial, while geeks are just not socially focused
– nerds have no friends, while geeks have people seeking their advice
– nerds use pocket protectors; geeks don’t
– geeks are cool
– nerds swim against the pop culture grain; geeks are more tech-focused
– nerd = geek squared
– a geek has a useful skill
I just asked my wife if I was a geek; she said “Of course.” I asked her if I was a nerd. She demurred. I asked what the difference was. She had to think. “Well… they’re both genius… geek seems to be more… suave?”
So, in the current linguistic climate – though this may well change – although the terms have a certain amount of overlap, and although you have to allow for factors such as rhyme, generally geek is applied more broadly and with a certain amount of approbation, rather like wonk, while nerd has a greater connotation of social ineptitude or some kind of cluelessness. Among the crowd watching planes take off and land, a geek would be more like an aviation photographer, a nerd more like a planespotter. Trainspotters and other anoraks are no longer geeks; they’re not cool enough. Oh, but what about gongoozlers? A class of their own, I think.