Geeks vs. Nerds

June 29th, 2007

Update: Please also see the follow-up to this post, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.

When I tell people that I’m doing a dissertation on geek cultures, I think the question I get asked more than any other is: What’s the difference between a geek and a nerd? I’m never really sure if people actually want the full answer to this, but the short answer is that different people mean different things; most folks I’ve talked to either use them synonymously or think of one term as similar to but slightly more denigrating than the other (with ‘geek’ coming out on top somewhat more often). Here’s a short collection of links (in no particular order) directly addressing the distinctions people make between these terms, which I may update later rather than starting over again as a new post. Update: I’ve also started throwing in relevant examples explaining the difference between positive and negative uses of these terms.

  1. Jon Katz at Wired gets people riled up by suggesting that geeks are cool now, not nerds. I can’t find the original article that started the debate, but here are two articles written in response.
  2. Wikihow on how to tell the difference.
  3. OkCupid’s Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test.
  4. A conference paper (PDF) by Lars Konzack examining distinctions made by people on Wikipedia.
  5. The editors of She’s Such a Geek! note that contributors objected to the book being titled “Female Nerds,” believing ‘geek’ to have more positive connotations.
  6. In Embracing Insanity: Open Source Software Development, Russell Pavlicek devotes a whole chapter to discussing why you need to understand “geek culture” if you want to do business with open source developers. In a footnote, he explains that it’s important not to confuse geeks with nerds, as ‘nerd’ is still considered negative.
  7. An editorial comment in the Wired letters page reassures offended readers that ‘geek’ can have positive uses:

    Hang on a sec, wrote one reader, why do Wired editors “go out of their way to insult the technically savvy by calling them geeks.” That’s missing the point — where you hear an insult, we hear a term of endearment. A geek isn’t just someone who can articulately defend her opinion of who the best Babylon 5 commander was. (Sheridan.) It’s any dogged explorer or crazed inventor, anyone who fixates on a project and won’t let go, anyone who builds his own damn rocket! It’s a label to be proud of, in any star system.

    This comment clearly assigns positive meaning to scientific/technical pursuits and negative meaning to fannish pursuits, but by answering its own exemplar question, it humbly admits the author’s acceptance of membership in the negatively geeky group.

  8. In reply to a 2005 post titled “Have Geeks Gone Mainstream?”, Slashdot readers weigh in on whether it’s cool to be a geek, or whether it’s just cool to cop a geeky style. The original person who poses the question ties it in to computer science enrollment, but others bring in other geek interests, suggesting that even the readers of a site for “News for Nerds” don’t quite agree on what these terms mean.
  9. From geekculture.com forums: “Whats the difference between dork nerd and geek?” [sic]. The first answer sums up all the specific distinctions that follow: “everybody has a slightly different definition for each and most of the time, the definitions overlap enough to make it impossible to specify definitive differences between them.”
  10. From Slate: What’s the difference between a nerd and a nebbish? Suggests that nerds are targets of envy because they’re now respectable, whereas the nebbish is just a loveably pathetic loser with no particular connotations of media skill (but with a much clearer connotation of religious/ethnic/cultural membership).
  11. From Rocky Mountain News: According to this humorous piece (drawing, perhaps, on the wisdom of the author’s children), geeks are knowledgeable of technology, nerds are mostly just klutzy, and dorks remain undefined, but probably something worse than nerds.
  12. From Baylor University’s Lariat Online: This writer, a professional writing major, sugegsts that nerds are tech-job-oriented, whereas geeks are “not so productive” and have “eclectic interests—including elaborate, self-designed costuming and foam faux-weapons.” He goes on to suggest “five levels of geekdom,” describing himself as “moderate.”
  13. In an even earlier Slashdot post (2000), commenters respond to the question of what the difference is between geek and nerd, and which they prefer. The comments show a variety of opinions, though the “geek is a nerd with social skills” opinion ranks high. Another commenter points out that this thread revisits an even earlier post on the same topic (1999), which had been inspired by an article asking the same question from News and Observer (now offline, but available at Archive.org). That article starts out with the commonly-accepted notion that Bill Gates made geeks cool—”The richest man in America made his fortune by being obsessed with technology”—but goes on to question this assumption by attempting to make a hard distinction between geek and nerd, with some “spanning” the gap. Connie Eble, an English professor and slang specialist, states that “The definition changes all the time and it means different things to different people,” and so the article notes: “we’re stuck creating our own definitions based on what people tell us.”
  14. Militant Geek, a site that tracks geeky apparel, asserts: “Geeks are those that have technical aptitude, nerds are bright but socially awkward, and dorks are just inept excuses for protoplasm.” To clarify, it offers a humorous chart.
  15. Michael James Gratton compares the Jargon File definitions of geek (connoting someone who chooses “concentration rather than conformity”) and nerd (a “pejorative” for someone who is of “above-average IQ” and unskilled in “ordinary social rituals”).
  16. Primary0 finds the dictionary definitions lacking, noting that “A geek is said to be a more social nerd.” Suggests that geeks are more narrow in their obsessions than nerds.
  17. A number of links (1, 2, 3, via Church) discuss replacing ‘geek’ with some other, less “chic” term, arguing about what ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ really mean along the way. Readers/listeners seem to find ‘geek’ to be preferable to alternatives.
  18. A widely-circulated Venn diagram offers an intricate distinction between geeks, nerds, and dorks (though at least one writer I know of was dismayed to see this on the web; he had a very similar diagram of his own planned for inclusion in a book, albeit with some terms in different places). Webcomic xkcd offers a less detailed but no less accurate Venn diagram of its own.
  19. On CNN, The creators of Robot Chicken debate the difference between geeks and nerds. I add this even after officially closing this post because not only does it handily illustrate that even geek luminaries disagree on these terms’ meanings, but it also reveals that products like Wizard magazine use such distinctions as part of constructing their audience!

We are talking about the internet here, of course, so there’s a lot more where that came from (and, unsurprisingly, this comes up pretty frequently in my own interviews). I just figured I’d share some examples here to to help me keep track, and so I’d have a page to point back to next time someone asks.

This post is closed for future updates, but comments are still welcome. Please see the follow-up, “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited.


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22 Responses to “Geeks vs. Nerds”

  1. Dan Says:

    So, if I post this comment from my iPhone, is that geeky or nerdy?

  2. Joachim Bengtsson Says:

    I’ve always considered the term “nerd” to be negative while “geek” positive. However, I’ve met as much people considering the same as the opposite, so lately I’ve used them both interchangeably (because half the people are going to misunderstand me whichever term I use)

  3. Church Says:

    My definition: A nerd is someone who is very intelligent, a geek is someone who is very knowledgeable, and a dork is someone who argues the difference.

  4. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » What Type(s) of Geek Are You? Says:

    […] classify and define geeks and nerds, establishing boundaries and distinctions. I get asked what the difference is between a geek and a nerd so much that even non-geeks are clearly pretty concerned about the […]

  5. You Gerks! Says:

    If you read all of this article up to this point you’re a geek, nerd and a dork!! You bunch of Gerks!!…..oh wait, so did I…doh!

  6. Mark in SF Says:

    A nerd will be into video games, go to star trek conventions, play World of Warcraft, be into comics, sci fi, etc.

    A geek will hack his iPhone, read textbooks for fun, and become a master of technical knowledge.

    There is a world of difference.

  7. Stewart Paske Says:

    I personally find it impossible to differentiate between the two. Both terms, as far as I am aware, were initially used as derogatory terms for the traditional American high-school stereotypes for the intellectually gifted.

    Their passion for knowledge and education set them apart from their peers, and those who feared or failed to understand this difference – the kind of people who are unfortunately left with the task of defining what is and is not ‘cool’ – drove a social wedge between perfectly acceptable individuals and the rest of society.

    Now however, the geeks are striking back. Much in the same way homosexuals were shunned in the past and now have gay pride, geeks are striking back in force with their own geek pride. The geeks and nerds of the 70’s and 80’s are now some of the most wealthy people in the I.T. industry, and intelligence is once again celebrated.

    I could go on…

  8. Mike Wardle Says:

    What about us boffins?

  9. Jason Tocci Says:

    Honestly, I suspect most Americans don’t even know the term. After the dissertation is complete, I’m planning to publish something a little more expansive on international and cross-cultural interpretations of geek stereotypes—covering the stuff I haven’t had time or space to work on here! Feel free to chime in, though, about distinctions you see between the geek, nerd, dork, otaku, boffin, friki, etc.

  10. Geek Studies » Blog Archive » Authentically Geeky Says:

    […] I’m curious, then, how people reading this blog might (or might not) draw the line between real geeks and faux-geeks. Certainly there are people who affect a trendy, nerdy image but wouldn’t call themselves nerds—but are people who actually call themselves geeks who you’d have to disagree with? If so, how can you tell that difference between the real and the fake? Even if you don’t make such clear judgment calls, do you find yourself acting differently around some geeks than you would around others? Personally, I’m more interested in keeping track of other people’s definitions than in declaring any one definition to be “right,” so I welcome any and all to chime in here—even if you’ve already put in your two cents on the subject of defining geeks vs. nerds. […]

  11. More on how VIM beats Emacs « Theatre of Consciousness Says:

    […] Someone who posted something along the same lines as this: a comparison of the two, and he comes to the same conclusion – that there isn’t a clear delineation between the two terms.  Not in objective reference, nor in subjective forums. […]

  12. More on how VIM beats Emacs » lolcat.us Says:

    […] Someone who posted something along the same lines as this: a comparison of the two, and he comes to the same conclusion – that there isn’t a clear delineation between the two terms.  Not in objective reference, nor in subjective forums. […]

  13. girl Says:

    I have been told, I’m a nerd because I enjoy Star Wars, renaissance, LOTR, video games and so forth. I’m a geek because I read text books and am constantly studying random things , not to mention I love my Macs. Hmm… I suppose I could be called either and perhaps a dork occasionally. But I am not at all a nerd or geek by image nor do I view the terms to be a cool label. I just am what I have always been and what anyone should be. Themselves.

  14. Geek vs Nerd Says:

    I’ve always seen geeks as someone interested in stuff like computers, gaming, anime, roleplaying, movies (especially LOTRO and Star Wars) or such while I view nerds as people who are good at academic studies like mathematics or physics.

  15. Eh... Says:

    I’m trying to figure out which is which as well, as I’m currently writing a definition essay for my college english class with the purpose of defining “nerd.” From everything I’ve read, my own opinion has slowly strengthened in the direction of a nerd being a D&D buff, totally into video games, excelling at math and science, taking notes, dressing slightly offish (out of social complacency, the lack of NEEDING to fit in). What I’ve formulated from what I’ve read about geeks is that they put forth an effort to socially fit in, and this effort drives them to find a social niche for themselves, which is usually becoming a technical handiman. They practically thrive on being able to fix things for people, including (but not limited to) iPods, PCs, cell phones, etc. Although a geek doesn’t naturally fit in socially, they are attention hungry; nerds… not so much. Another thing about geeks, they somehow manage to find ways to be stylish without looking normal (nerds don’t look normal, but at the same time don’t have anything close to an edge on style, having parted their hair in the same spot since age 3).

    Have I come anywhere near an accurate assessment?

  16. Jamie Says:

    a geek is a person who is mostly focused on one thing
    a nerd is someone who is socially weird

  17. Adrianna D. Says:

    I believe it is good to be intellectual, and not to care about the peer pressures to be anti-intellectual. I’d love if my peers/every single kid to turn into a nerd – where that means someone who prefers studying and learning to competing for social dominance, which can unfortunately cause the downward spiral into social rejection- What they lack in physical strength they make up in brain power. Who writes all the best selling books? Nerds. Who directs the top grossing Hollywood movies? Nerds. Who creates the highly advanced technology that only they can understand? …Nerds. And who are the people who run for the high office of the Presidency? No one but nerds!

    *****NERD PRIDE***** GO NERDS! (I’m on your team ) 8-)

    If you are on the nerd team, gimme the nerd smiley!! 8-) 8-) 8-) 8-)

    Lol. This is fun. I’m such a nerd. 8-)

  18. Geek Studies » “Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited Says:

    […] in 2007, I started a post titled “Geeks vs. Nerds.” After the Geek Studies home page, it is the most visited page on this site by about 3,000 […]

  19. nmman Says:

    Bill Gates calls himself a Nerd, the tech support people at best buy are called Geeks. Dweebs are regarded even worse than Dorks, and noids in pizza commercial I guess are worse than Dweebs.

  20. A matter of names « Fiction Studies Says:

    […] and nerds have different origins but the overall actual meaning is the same. A good resource is Geek Studies take on it. More discussions on the matter will follow in the […]

  21. kylegeisler.net » Archive » nerd or geek Says:

    […] ↑ Geek Studies, Geeks vs. Nerds, http://www.geekstudies.org/2007/06/geeks-vs-nerds […]

  22. Enterprise Geeks Podcast – Prepare to Qualify Says:

    […] Geeks vs. Nerds […]