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What Is a Nerd? What Is a Geek?

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Weeks ago, the “nerd versus geek” debate came up between some of my colleagues. This is well-trodden ground and I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but there was something in that discussion that caught my interest.

I’ve always viewed nerd as a more positive term—or at the very least neutral—and geek as a derogatory one. To me, a nerd was someone who’s intelligent and not necessarily unlikable or antisocial, whereas a geek was someone who’s bookish, unkempt, and generally lacking in social awareness or etiquette. My wife agreed with me on this.

But my colleagues, they see it differently. To them, a nerd is strictly academic: chemistry, physics, mathematics, and the like. A nerd is defined purely by their intellectual interests. A geek, on the other hand, is more of a topical enthusiast. Geeks don’t have to be book smart as long as they’re knowledgeable about their particular passions, whatever they are. To them, nerds are more likely to exhibit antisocial behaviors whereas geeks are more likely to be socially normal.

The general consensus—according to the web—seems to be that my colleagues are right. Articles like this one on BigThink propose that education and academics are “nerdy” while hobbies and pop culture are “geeky.” Articles elsewhere, like on WikiHow and UrbanDictionary, agree on these definitions.

If that’s the case, then where would these famous TV nerds and geeks fall?

  • Abed Nadir (Community)
  • Ross Geller (Friends)
  • J.D. Dorian (Scrubs)
  • Dwight Schrute (The Office)
  • George Costanza (Seinfeld)
  • Kaylee Frye (Firefly)
  • Maurice Moss (The IT Crowd)
  • Carlton Banks (The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air)

Because I’ll be honest: they’re all the same to me. Nerds and geeks.

Back to the chart by BigThink that was linked above. Despite the fact that “nerd” and “geek” carry different connotations, at the end of the day, they concede that there’s a good amount of overlap between the two. Interests like “reading,” “computers,” and “gamer” are about 50/50 on the nerd-or-geek scale. Now, without looking at the chart, can you guess where these fall on the spectrum: “zombies,” “chess,” “superheroes,” “Star Trek”? You might be surprised! Going off that same BigThink chart, I completely disagree that “documentary” is full-on geeky while “cellist” is maximal nerdy.

I should make it clear that I don’t have a bone to pick with BigThink or where they got their data. I’m trying to make a point here, and that point is: Isn’t the line between geek and nerd completely arbitrary? Dare I say, subjective?

And if that’s the case, then who cares?

Does it really matter whether one is a “nerd” or a “geek”? Or a “dork” or a “dweeb”? Or an “anorak”? (Bonus points if you know what that is, and maybe you can explain it to me in the comments while you’re at it.)

Isn’t it enough to say that we—as nerds or geeks or whatever other labels you happen to believe in—are simply those who have taken an interest in something that’s considered unfashionable, bizarre, esoteric, non-mainstream? Whether that interest is a weird show, techy gadgets, Harry Potter, board games, or comic books. Does the terminology have to imply a failure of personality or sociability? Surely there are charismatic and personable nerds and geeks out there! So why does the definition need to have some degree of social ineptness baked into it?

Let’s just say nerds and geeks are the same. Here at WhatNerd, our name could have just as easily been WhatGeek. It doesn’t matter what we’re called as long as we understand what we stand for, and actively stand for those beliefs. We’re here to explore all of the nerdiness, geekiness, and even dorkiness in the world. But for the sake of brevity, we’ll stick with the term “nerd” and call it a day.

For nerds, by nerds. Welcome to WhatNerd. Enjoy your stay.

Joel Lee
Joel is Editor in Chief at WhatNerd. He contributes the occasional article and manages the overall vision of the site. He holds a B.S. in Computer Science and is based in Pennsylvania.
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