Great Geek Debates: “Geek” vs. “Nerd”

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Wil Wheaton, geek and proud of itWil Wheaton, geek and proud of it

Wil Wheaton, geek and proud of it

The English language has a wonderful capacity for nuance. Doctoral dissertations could be, and I’m sure have been, written about the semantic differences that evolve between words that started out meaning much the same thing. Specifically, of course, I want to examine the words “geek” and “nerd.”

Geeks no longer bite the heads off chickens, any more than barbers still practice bloodletting. The word “geek” certainly used to have a negative connotation, but over time — and especially in the last fifteen or so years — its meaning has trended positive. I attribute this almost entirely to the internet becoming mainstream due to the explosive growth of the World Wide Web. For the first time, people started to be a bit envious of us geeks, because we’d been using email and online chat since long before most people had ever heard of them. As time went on, and computer prices kept falling precipitously, nearly everyone — even the elderly — wanted some kind of internet access, and who did they call to set it up for them? Geeks, of course.

image: Foximage: Fox

image: Fox

Nerds haven’t come as far. The word “nerd” came, so far as anyone can tell, from a Dr. Seuss book, a fact that can serve to make one glad nobody adopted the term “seersucker” instead. Nerds are brainy like geeks, but also socially inept. Nerds look weird, act strange, and can’t talk about anything but nerdy subjects like computers and science fiction. Why does this meaning persist? I can’t say for sure, but I think it boils down to two words: Robert Carradine. I think Revenge of the Nerds (and, to a lesser extent, its sequels) ruined any chance the word had of becoming anything other than derogatory.

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!

So what do you think? Are you a geek, a nerd, both, or neither?

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