Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Geeks and nerds

A few years ago, a friend and I stayed up until about 4 in the morning discussing the use and meaning of the terms ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’. I realised afterwards that our disagreement stemmed from the fact that the word geek has two main uses in English.

The first use of the word geek is to refer to someone with an unusually intense and deep devotion to a particular subject (e.g. music geek, maths geek, computer geek, film geek).

The second use refers to someone who is typically interested in:
a) computers,
b) science fiction and/or fantasy, or
c) both
(right: the fantasy geek, playing Dungeons and Dragons)

As a mildly interesting aside, I am a geek in both ways. I am interested in fantasy, as well as being unusually devoted to certain topics such as music, Harry Potter, and the creation/evolution debate.

The word nerd, in contrast, refers to a person who is typically very intelligent but socially and physically awkward.
(right: a nerd)

In America, the meanings of these two words are swapped. Nerd refers to either someone with an unusually intense devotion or someone interested in computers and/or fantasy. Geek refers to the socially awkward genius. Hence, while I am a geek (in English), I would not fit on the American show Beauty and the Geek.


James Doc said...

I think that you are missing a key slice of the pie here Ben... There are four main terms that you need to be looking at:

- Geek
- Nerd
- Dweeb
- Dork

(a side note here that Boffin may come in as well, however is covered by the other terms)

These four categories are traditionally used to define people who stand out from the crowd in being more than one of the following three:

- Intelligent on specific subjects (traditionally maths & science)
- Obsessive (ie your D&D player or SciFi guy)
- Socially Awkward

These things on their own tend not to go under the previous categories, however when you combine them the titles tend to apply... therefore:

Geeks are people who combine intelligence with obsessiveness... I would personally put myself (and many people I know) into this category... for I have intelligence and obsession to computing and scifi which is a fairly standard thing, however this can manifest in other non-standard fashions such as an 'art geek' or a 'sports geek'

The term dweeb gets applied to those who have an high intelligence (maths, science, etc) yet do not have the skills to communicate them.

A dork would come as mixture of social awkwardness, while having obsessive behaviour over something... it is often the obsessive behaviour that causes the awkwardness because people are not sure how to react to the obsessions.

So finally a nerd, in my opinion, is someone who has obsession, intelligence, and social awkwardness.

I think that everyone has elements of all three in them, however it manifests when people are with other like minded people differently. Normally you will see 'geeky' behaviour at uni courses because the people are interested in the subject; they have the intelligence and often that is matched with an equal level of obsession... it doesn't have to be huge obsession but everyone has a talent or a skill that could be called a geek talent by someone.

Unknown said...

I agree about the extra terms, but I focused on geek and nerd because (a) they were the terms under discussion a few years ago, and (b) they seem to be the most widely used words.

I stand by my double definition of geek, and I don't think that geekiness requires intelligence. Equally, I don't think a nerd requires obsession.

This is based on the usage that I have heard over the last decade or so.