Geek versus Nerd

As made obvious by the title of this blog, David and I consider ourselves geeks (probably also nerds, but more geeks), but what does that really mean? If you watch Doctor Who, BSG, anything by Joss Whedon, does that make you geek? If you know a computer backwards and forwards – and spend your spare time building your own box – does that make you a geek? Is it obsessively reading and trying to figure out how the world works around you? Or are you a nerd for those things?

When thinking about definitions I figured a good place to start was to see what the dictionary had to say. I have come to discover that might not have been the best place to start.

Dictionary.com Definitions

Geek

  1. a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)
  2. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
  3. a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, as biting off the head of a live chicken.

Nerd

  1. a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person.
  2. an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd.

Okay WHAT?! I really should not be shocked, but it still threw me back. In this time of superheroes and the supernatural permeating the entertainment industry, and more and more people openly calling themselves geeks and nerds, these very negative definitions still exist. I think even the most negative definitions I have heard for geek and nerd are not as bad as what Dictionary.com says!

Our Definitions

Okay, so those are definitely not the best places to start. So I guess I just start with David and my definitions:

Geek

  1. a person who enjoys a cultural artifact beyond casual enjoyment or observation.

For example, Person One reads George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series and enjoys it, might recommend it to a friend, but once they put down the book they are done with it. Person Two reads the same series, proceeds to tell their friends about it, and begins to speculate to anyone who will listen on what the real stories are behind many of the characters (All the Game of Thrones Fan Theories You Absolutely Need to Know). Person One is a casual enjoyer; Person Two is a geek.

Nerd

  1. a person who wants to know how the world works currently, historically, and futuristically.

For example, Person Three also reads the series Song of Ice and Fire, and they start looking at how the philosophies presented in the book could help us understand our relationships to each other or how the power struggles can relate to current world diplomacy (Game of Thrones and Philosophy: Logic Cuts Deeper Than Swords).

It’s important to note that geek and nerd – according to our definitions – are not the opposite sides of one coin, or interchangeable. Someone can be both a geek and a nerd. Also, cultural artifacts are not in and of themselves inherently geeky or nerdy; being geeky or nerdy is in how you interact with that artifact.

An Example

Sports is a great example of this because sports are not usually thought of as geeky or nerdy… but then you start thinking of Fantasy Leagues.

A Sports Geek would be like someone who plays in a Fantasy League; they are watching games, but they are creating a whole new level of interaction by creating their own fantasy team that they want to hit certain stat points for their imaginary team to win.

A Sports Nerd would be like someone who for either certain players or teams or whole sports can list the stats off from year to year and talk about the prediction based on those stats of how the teams are going to do. Combine a Sports Nerd and a Sports Geek and you probably have a pretty competitive Fantasy Team.

Nerds on Nerds

Obviously this is just based on David and my definition. It does not take long to look on the Internet and find a whole lot of definitions for both of these terms. One of the more interesting discussions about the definition of Nerd, that I have heard recently, happened on the Nerdist podcast episode 283.

Chris Hardwick interviews Max Landis and about 20 minutes into the conversation they get into a discussion about what it means to be a Nerd. Chris talks about how he considers himself a nerd, and in his stand up says he is trying to take back “the other N word.” He says that a Nerd is

“someone who has an almost mutant level of focus on a thing. Being a nerd is not about what you like, but how you like those things.”

Max on the other hand says that a

“Nerd is someone who is unable to exist outside of their focus. Example: You love Star Wars and all you talk about is Star Wars.”

Comparing just these two definitions to our definition becomes incredibly interesting because what Chris Hardwick calls a Nerd I would call a Geek. Then you have Max Landis’ definition which is maybe what I would call a socially awkward geek. In the discussion Max clarifies his statement by also saying that he did not feel being a Nerd was a permanent state of being. In someways it felt that what I might call an awkward phase for some of my geekier friends he would call it a nerdy phase, but it is something you grow out of.

So where does that leave us? I think it leaves us kind of where we started, but hopefully with a little bit more understanding of the larger context behind the terms Nerd and Geek. The definition seems to have a generational and locational shift (Christ noted that he and Max grew up in different eras which could explain their differences in the term Nerd).

It will be interesting to see in another ten or twenty years what a younger generation will think when they hear about a Podcast called Nerdist or a blog called Geek and Sundry. How do you define Geek and Nerd, and would you classify yourself as either of these things?

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12 responses to “Geek versus Nerd

  1. Great post and food for thought. (Mental note, get caught up with Nerdist podcast). I seem to gravitate lately toward ‘geek’ being more aligned with actual, applicable knowledge (a.k.a. real life sciences, technology, etc.) where ‘nerd’ is more about the level of fandom or enthusiasm for something. Geeks can tell you how a nuclear reactor really works, where nerds would be able to tell you how dilithium crystals affect a warp core and not have a clue as to how ‘realistic’ it may be. They adapt to the ‘rules’ and logic of a particular fictional construct and go with that.

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    • I love it because your comment totally brings into my point about the labels Geek and Nerd being different for people. Someone I call a geek or nerd you might even call more of a fan, which could get into a whole other can of worms with what it means to be a fan.

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  2. I used to debate and try to nail down these definitions myself, never got anywhere either. The truth is that they’re blending and overlapping so much in common usage that it’s pretty much impossible to untangle them. I’ve just accepted using them as synonyms. And this is my current definition: If you love something deeply, un-ironically and enthusiastically and have ever been made to feel less than other people for that love – if this hasn’t stopped you – you are one of us.

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  4. I feel like the classic labels of Geek and Nerd have almost lost their original context, primarily focusing on the science fiction world or the world of less common knowledge (i.e. people on the classic high school ‘mathlete’ spectrum, computer programmers before computer usage was so wide spread and other technological advances). Now a lot of people use the term ‘geeking out’ when they delve into the technical terminology or study of anything that interests them, whether it be video games or knitting. The claim of nerdom in the modern realm is almost used for people who are fans/fanatics of something that is slightly technical or at the very least not something that would be published in a fitness or fashion magazine.

    For more on the entomology/ amusing history on the word nerd I recommend “American Nerd: The Story of My People” by Benjamin Nugent.

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