Monday, December 20, 2010

nerd vs geek

Welcome to my inaugural post on my blog "Word Nerd."  I have chosen the title "word nerd" for two reasons. a) "word" and "nerd" rhyme; b) the word "nerd"  has ameliorated apprciably in the last four  decades. Also, just as I 'd rather be a hammer than a nail, I'd rather be a geek than a nerd, but, alas, I am not sufficently adept technically to deserve such a meritorious designation. And, "speak geek" doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as "word nerd."
This therefore poses the following existential dilemma: Is there a difference between a geek and a nerd?

This question was posed to me some years  ago by a McGill law professor  after writer David Brooks used these terms interchangeably in an op-ed piece in the New York Times. This judicious man felt that the two terms referred to slightly different people. He checked his Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary that indicated that “the words do not mean the same kind of person, although to my surprise nerd includes ‘unattractive’ person in the definition and geek does not, which I would have thought was the other way around ” 

I think that most people would give a geek a slightly higher status than a nerd. While both terms imply obsession with a particular activity for me the obsession that the geek has comes also with knowledge of his subject whereas I don’t necessarily regard the nerd is as knowledgeable. I view a geek as more hireable than a nerd. Although the terms “computer nerd” and “computer geek” are often interchangeable, I would never describe Bill Gates as a computer nerd but only as a “computer geek.” In fact, he is often describes as the “alpha geek.”

What I am reflecting here is not so much the actual meaning of these words but the way in which I and every speaker employs particular words. I know people who ascribe a higher status to the term “nerd” than to “geek.” Dictionaries are not that helpful in settling this debate. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “nerd” as “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious” whereas the Encarta World English Dictionary (EWED) characterizes a nerd as “an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody’s, especially a man or boy’s social skills or intelligence.” It also mentions that a nerd can be a “single-minded enthusiast.” For “geek,” the OED says “Frequently depreciative. An overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit” and EWED says a “geek” is “someone who is considered unattractive and socially awkward.”

One can see from these definitions that some people would view the two terms as synonymous and others would not.

There probably has been more amelioration to the word “geek” than “nerd.” I checked a newsgroup discussion on this topic in 1996 that showed that a slight majority of participants accrued a higher value to nerd than to geek. A discussion that took place last year on the same newsgroup showed overwhelming support for a higher status to geek.

In any case I believe that due to the fact that many people who were labeled geeks or nerds in high school went on to become very wealthy imparted a higher status to these words. After all, being a billionaire is seen as cool in society notwithstanding that the billionaire may be a geek or a nerd.

American public libraries now have a campaign that might ameliorate the meaning of “geek” even more. The slogan is “Geek the Library” and at the campaign's website at you are encouraged to “get your geek on” and “share what you geek.” The amelioration of “geek” is enhanced at the website by the following mock dictionary entry:

geek, verb

1)To love, to enjoy, to celebrate, to have an intense passion for.
2)To express interest in.
3)To possess a large amount of knowledge in.

Personally, I don’t mind being called a nerd or a geek. Just don’t call me a dweeb, doofus, or dork.

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