“Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited

July 20th, 2010

Back 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 pageviews—and to be frank, the next nearest contender gets a lot of its traffic from people who are probably looking for porn. When I get called to be interviewed for a newspaper article, or when I get linked by a major blog, it’s usually thanks to that post.

In other words, people really, really want to know what the difference is between geeks and nerds.

Recently, I noticed that Wikihow cited this post in its guide on “How to Tell the Difference Between Nerds and Geeks.” The point of my “Geeks vs. Nerds” post, however, was to argue that there is not a difference—or at least no one, true, universally agreed-upon difference. The point of that post was to catalog some of the many different ways that people define ‘geek’ and ‘nerd,’ and the distinctions between them, illustrating that these terms evolve in meaning from place to place, day to day, person to person. Many people insist that there is a difference, and for them personally, perhaps there is—but no guide will ever adequately tell you what is the right thing to call another person, as the Wikihow article itself wisely cautions by the end.

In defining what these terms are supposed to mean, people frequently refer back to their origins. The first recorded usage of ‘nerd’ dates back to Dr. Seuss’s 1954 If I Ran the Zoo, appearing shortly thereafter in journalism as synonymous with “a drip.” A lot of people trace ‘geek’ back to the term applied to circus performers who bit the heads off live animals, but the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it goes back much further to refer to a “foolish” person, potentially even appearing in an early form in Shakespeare’s writing.

The problem with leaning on etymology, however, is that meanings change over time. Most non-geeks do not remember the circus-related connotations of the word, and most self-professed geeks don’t even seem to realize that the word goes back even further. It’s interesting to trace where these words started, but what they mean today is much more easily traced to recent events: movies about high school and college, colorful figures of the electronic frontier, and memories of our own childhood.

I’ve enjoyed collecting and posting all various definitions and distinctions between these terms, but I think I’m calling it quits now. “Geeks vs. Nerds” will stand unedited from now on (barring some happening far too exciting and relevant to pass up). In the end, I think the final word on this issue goes to the webcomic responsible for my third most trafficked post, xkcd. In the meantime, I’ll echo the aforementioned Wikihow article’s advice: “Aim to assume nothing and to treat all fellow human beings with equal respect, whatever label they’re self-applying or you’re tempted to apply.” I’d further caution my fellow self-proclaimed geeks and nerds not to get too offended when people call you by your less preferred term as an adult. Whether the Geek Shall Inherit the Earth or we’re seeing the Revenge of the Nerds, neither of these terms needs to be an insult if we don’t take them as such.

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3 Responses to ““Geeks vs. Nerds” Revisited”

  1. Geek Studies » Geeks vs. Nerds Says:

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

  2. Church Says:

    Just don’t think I’m going to stop sending examples to you.

  3. Jason Tocci Says:

    I would be hurt if you did stop.

    (I should probably also mention for the benefit of the readership at large that the examples I posted represent only a fraction of all the examples Church has sent my way over the years.)