Just a note before we start: I know I said I was going to change the visual theme of the blog because of formatting concerns, but the theme I had in mind (and several others, too) were not able to properly display an em-dash. Seriously, I tried a half dozen, and all of them failed the test. I am keeping this theme until I can find a readable, em-dash-supporting layout.
Recently, I was wondering what was becoming of nerd culture–was it kaput, still running along, or had it been completely corrupted and appropriated to sell people stuff? But I quickly ran into a roadblock. In my mind, I know what “nerd” means, but when I try to pin down a definition of the word, it keeps slipping away like a buttered eel.
Sort of like the laughs from that joke.
Not a little cynically, I’d had a thought in my mind that the word had been made meaningless, or at least its definition had changed beyond recognition, by becoming part of the mainstream. I spent some time digging and asking around, though, and have come to the understanding that “nerd” has no set definition. Not yet, at least. It has undergone a fluid transition since its creation, but, oddly, because of nerds’ acceptance into the main stream, we may finally see a permanent definition settle into place.
To find the first instances of the word “nerd,” we have to go back about sixty years. Most sources claim that the word first appeared in 1950, in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo. The character Gerald McGrew lists more creatures he would add to his zoo, if he were in charge:
Then the whole town will gasp, “Why, this boy never sleeps!
No keeper before ever kept what he keeps!
There’s no telling WHAT that young fellow will do!”
And then, just to show them, I’ll sail to Ka-Troo
and a Proo
and a Seersucker, too! (51-52)
Remind you of anyone?
At first glance, this makes sense. That Nerd is unkempt, and generally looks like it’d rather be doing something else. Additionally, it is also the only creature in the story that wears clothes, so we’re inclined to think that it is at least humanoid, if not explicitly human. The theory continues on with an often cited observation: in 1951, Newsweek printed the sentence, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd, or in a less severe case, a scurve.” If you were a nerd in 1951, it was terminal. Through his surprisingly thorough research, Jim Burrows, in his article “The Origin of the Nerd,” found that this was not the only citing of the word coming out of Detroit at the time. In five years, he found, four more usages of “nerd” popped up in popular media around Detroit, and spreading outward through the Midwest and then east to Boston and south to Arkansas. He admits it’s a small sample, but it’s actually fairly significant, considering that ’50s-era media was still largely localized, that new slang was not generally accepted in journalism at the time, and that, without going to local libraries all over the US and spending some serious time melding with the microfiche machine, this kind of detailed information relating to that era can be hard to find.
I have to agree with Burrows’ assessment, though, that the Dr. Seuss origin story might be a happy coincidence. While a picture might be worth a thousand words, to draw a substantial conclusion that the word “nerd” as it was used in the 1950s, came from Seuss, we would need to back up the visual description with words. Since there are none, only artistic interpretation and conjecture apply to this origin story.
Additionally, the explanation of the word being derived from “knurd” (“drunk” spelled backward) is largely considered to be wholesale poppycock, since the derivative does not match any existing definitions or connotations of drunkenness.
Sadly, it is far more likely that the etymology stems from the use of the word “nuts” or “nut” in the 1940s, meaning crazy or a crazy/undesirable person, respectively. The transition would go something like this: nut, nurt. It then may have branched off in either of two re-convening paths: nert, nerd; or nurd, nerd. It was Gershberms before Gershberms. Still, with the recent popularity and acceptance of nerd culture, this interpretation, like many others, may be simply an example of contemporary culture trying to divine significance out of the past. The takeaway here is that “nerd” was likely in American vernacular for quite a while prior to showing up in print, but is still a relatively new word. But what does it mean?
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.
That’s quite a range, so let’s get a second opinion. On his site, wordorigins.org, Dave Wilton writes, “In today’s parlance, a nerd is an exceptional studious or technically proficient person, but the original sense was that of a boring or very conventional person.” The entry from the Online Etymology Dictionary confirms this: “1951, U.S. student slang, probably an alteration of 1940s slang nert ‘stupid or crazy person,’ itself an alteration of nut.”
The past definition of “nerd” is very specific; it replaced an existing slang term for someone who was conventional to the point that they could not or would not fit into mainstream society. Now, though, we can see that the definition has changed. The personality type–socially awkward, irritating, conventional–may still apply, but the intelligence level is reversed. Although not the definitive source for cultural information Urban Dictionary does have a tendency to keep updated records of slang through crowd sourcing. Check out its entries on “nerd,” and you’ll see that almost all of them refer to someone who is highly intellectual or intelligent. Trouble begins, though, when people begin using the word “geek.”
It seems that there is a minor cultural battle over the differentiation of “nerd” and “geek,” and whether they can be used interchangeably. At first, it would seem that they can. According to The Online Etymology Dictionary and Dave Wilton (using the Oxford English Dictionary), “geek” gets its roots in the Low German “geck,” meaning “a fool, dupe, simpleton,” and one can find written examples going back to the early 1500s. Just for fun, though, take a look at the modern definition:
1. a digital-technology expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often used disparagingly by others).
2. a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity: a foreign-film geek.
3. a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, especially one who is perceived to be overly intellectual.
We’re going to come back to #4, don’t worry. For now, though, hold on to your socks, because we’re about to get nonlinear. First, let’s acknowledge the change in meaning from stupidity to expertise, speciality, and intellectualism. As with “nerd,” that’s a huge shift. If you’re thinking to yourself, “Something big must have happened to change the fundamental definition of a word,” you’re absolutely right. Something big did happen. At the end of the 1970s, led by notable names like Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak, the microcomputer revolution exploded. It was also around this time, that the terms “geek” and “nerd” referred almost exclusively to the kinds of guys who had created the machines that would worm their way into almost every aspect of our lives for the next thirty years. But that still doesn’t explain the one-track-mind aspect of either word.
From the definition above, version #4 takes care of that missing piece. Cue the Online Etymology Dictionary:
“sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang […] The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow “wild men” is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).
Still a derogatory term, we have, however, found our point of inception for specialization. It’s a base connotation at this point, but it’s there and is destined for denotation. In Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, he makes five references to the word “geek” (none to “nerd”). I was going to cite all five, but upon closer inspection I’ve decided that I’m going to subject you to just three:
- I am still vaguely haunted by our hitchhiker’s remark about how he’d “never rode in a convertible before.” Here’s this poor geek living in a world of convertibles zipping past him on the highways all the time, and he’s never even ridden in one. It made me feel like King Farouk. (17)
- By ten they were spread out all over the course. It was no longer a “race”; now it was an Endurance Contest. The only visible action was at the start/finish line, where every few minutes some geek would come speeding out of the dustcloud and stagger off his bike, while his pit crew would gas it back up and then launch it back onto the track with a fresh driver … for another fifty-mile lap, another brutal hour of kidney-killing madness out there in that terrible dust-blind limbo. (38)
- They were having a bang-up time–just crashing around the desert at top speed and hassling anybody they met. “What outfit you fellas with?” one of them shouted. The engines were all roaring; we could barely hear each other.“The sporting press,” I yelled. “We’re friendlies—hired geeks.” (39)
A caveat to the following analysis is that it may, of course, be biased toward the current definition of the word “geek.” In the first quote, geek seems to take the meaning “square,” but it can also mean someone who is sheltered or socially dysfunctional. The second quote seems to imply “specialist,” since the drivers are there to do one thing and do it well. But considering that Thompson painted this event (and most of Las Vegas) as a kind of freak show, the “specialist” aspect gets blended with that of “circus freak.” Quote number three is probably the closest he comes to the modern definition, referring to writers and photographers as harmless specialists, not particularly aware of the rest of the world around themselves. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, the existing term “geek” absorbed meaning from the word “freak,” due in part to hippie culture mixing with the mainstream. It is entirely plausible that Thompson was using these words almost interchangeably, with only slightly different shades of meaning.
One such example of this interchangeability is Brother Power the Geek, a two-issue comic created by Joe Simon (Captain America) in 1968. The eponymous character was a tailor’s dummy brought to life to protect hippies. Originally, according to Jim Burrows and several other sources, the character was supposed to be called Brother Power the Freak, but at the time “freak” (and especially Hunter Thompson’s oft-referenced Freak Power movement) connoted drug references, so the descriptor was changed to “geek.” Regardless of the connotations, both terms denoted separation from the mainstream. This may be just one example, but it does show an active redefining of words in popular culture during this time period.
Let’s jump forward to the 1980s and, now that we have a better sense of the evolution of where these words are coming from and how they’re intermingling, get back to the tech boom. As in the cultural revolution in the ’60s and ’70s, the technological revolution of the late ’70s and ’80s led to some further redefining of terms via popular culture. While Tron (1982) never specifically called any of its characters nerds or geeks, it did portray them in a new light, as adventurers and warriors of a different stripe. A reversal of If I Ran the Zoo, it gave the idea, but without a name–priming its audience for what was to come. In 1984, we find a nexus. Revenge of the Nerds and Sixteen Candles came out that year, and helped to create the definitions of “nerd” and “geek” that would last until the turn of the century.
In Revenge of the Nerds, Gilbert says, “I just wanted to say that I’m a nerd, and I’m here tonight to stand up for the rights of other nerds. I mean uh, all our lives we’ve been laughed at and made to feel inferior. And tonight, those bastards, they trashed our house. Why? Cause we’re smart? Cause we look different?” And Lewis adds, “[…] When you went to Adams you might’ve been called a spazz, or a dork, or a geek.” Right there, we have equivalency. In this case, they’re talking about regionalisms: the terms for those who don’t fit in because of interests, intelligence, looks, or personality quirks. In Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall’s character is called The Geek, and he refers to himself as “the king of the dipshits.” On the surface, this seems like rough treatment, but what’s really happening here, between these two movies and Tron, is a redefining of the “freak” as one who, while awkwardly non-adherent to the social graces, is highly technically proficient in one specific area.
Now, though, we have redundancy: freak, geek, nerd, square, and dork. I’m only really here to talk about “nerd,” but am required to talk about “geek” in order to draw contrast. So, quickly, I’ll take these other terms out of play. “Freak” simply lost its drug reference after the ’70s, and went back to meaning “nut” and “outsider,” which Paul Feig explored in his 1999 TV show Freaks and Geeks. The titular separation of these terms again helped to narrow the definition of “geek” into something more intellectual than simply acting strangely and not being cool. Freak, more recently, has gained a specifically sexual definition, depending on context. Granted, the phrases “she’s a freak in the sack” and “she’s a nerd in the sack” could and (often enough for me to notice) do mean exactly the same thing. So there’s that.
“Square”: no one born after 1980 uses “square” to describe anything other than a equilateral quadrilateral. If it does get used, it’s usually as a throwback, and means “boring” or “stuffy.”
“Dork” is often associated with “nerd” and “geek,” but the Online Etymology Dictionary dates this term back to the ’60s, and notes that it’s probably an alteration of the word “dick,” for the male genitalia. Unlike “nerd” and “geek,” “dork” is always derogatory, as it always carries a connotation of stupidity, obtuseness, or unintellectual single-mindedness.
Oh, Kurt, you’re such a dork.
Before I move on to the part of this wall of text in which I ask, “What does this all mean!?” and rock back and forth, chewing my fingernails, I need to get the final differentiation of “nerd” and “geek” sorted out. To do this, because the words evolved together, I had to look to contemporary sources. The problem with this is a distinct lack of authority. The dictionary definitions (above) don’t help because they are too similar. Urban Dictionary is helpful, but only in a limited way, since there is generally no vetting process, and definitions tend to be wildly subjective (“One whose IQ exceeds his weight,” while clever is neither true nor helpful).
Not satisfied to take the word of the Internet, I asked some people I know and got a few responses.
Hmmm. Nerd, to me, always carried more of a subtext of introversion–being a ‘nerd’ about something meant you obsessively collected and curated information on a topic, but maybe didn’t proselytize your interest or even communicate it that much. Whereas ‘geeking out’ is by definition public; it’s bringing your interests into your social interactions. Basically, nerds are quiet and geeks are loud. At least that’s what the terms always meant to me.
To be entirely unhelpful, I don’t have a good personal sense of the difference. Growing up, both were used as insults toward kids (or people in general) who were too academic, too sciency, too computer-savvy, too interested in Magic cards or D&D. As an adult, I’ve read several little blurbs and articles explicating the differences, most commonly between “nerd,” “geek,” and “dork.” But I don’t have a strong gut sense that I belong (or don’t belong) to one category or another. Nerd probably has the most positive instinctual connotations–I’m a book-nerd, in terms of loving books, but a music-and-poetry-geek, in terms of knowing excessive amounts about both, and a joke-dork in terms of enjoying stupid awkward humor that makes other people uncomfortable at dinner parties (much the way whale dorks make people uncomfortable at dinner parties, especially when worn as three-piece-suits).
The words seem to be conflated in today’s culture, with geek edging out nerd, I think, in terms of overall usage. If I were to try to distinguish them, I might say that a nerd is one who is intelligent, scholarly, into science and/or art, etc. A geek, on the other hand, is one who is deeply involved in fandom related to comics, games, movies, and the like. Not necessarily scholarly in the way I would expect a nerd to be, but I also don’t think a nerd would necessarily need to be into fandom. I guess that sums up how I think the words can be distinguished, but I also think they are probably used interchangeably more often than not.
To me, both are used to describe a passion for a complex non-mainstream subject, but where they differ is the subjects they relate to. A nerd is into intellectual subject matters like math or computer science. A geek is more cultural, like comics or film. [Author’s note: I’d argue that he meant “technical” instead of “intellectual,” but I don’t want to put words in anyone’s mouth.]
The best I can tell is a ‘geek’ is someone who is into something (comics, Star Wars, Cooking, Sports, Old movies, writing, or whatever) and will build friendships around that interests. They like to talk about the things they are into and will do so at length.
I think nerds tend to be like geeks, but without the social element. Also that the things that they are into isolate them from others reenforcing anti-socializing tendencies. They dive into the topic and do not talk to people about it.
I think its easier to find groups of geeks that all share the same interest, whereas a group of nerds come together from their shared social awkwardness.
The answer is, however, a little complicated, as in our lifetimes the meanings of each word have, at least in my mind and my experience of pop culture, become at times synonymous and at times quite different, at other times even swapping their definitions as one or the other came into vogue.
At the present time, I am inclined to define nerd as someone whose advanced interest in a subject inhibits, hinders, or precludes his or her ability to be a social creature.
I am inclined to define geek as someone whose advanced interest in a subject does not inhibit, and at times and in certain circumstances may well enhance his or her ability to be a social creature.
While I would like to venture a few thoughts about whether the sciences or the arts are more for the nerds or the geeks, or whether there are areas that are only nerdy or only geeky, they would be wild conjecture.
The main difference between nerd and geek for me is connotation. The term “nerd” tends to be used in a positive way, whereas I feel like “geek” is often used negatively. For instance, a computer nerd is someone who knows a lot about computers, whereas a computer geek is often thought of as socially awkward and not as approachable. Additionally, nerd refers to someone who has a lot of knowledge, whereas geek tends to include an obsessive/fanatical/devoted aspect to a particular area or subject.
So there you have it. Seven is obviously not the best sample size, and all respondents are 28-34 years old, but the general consensus–that “nerd” connotes technical proficiency, scholarship, and social ineptitude, whereas “geek” connotes enthusiasm, collectorship, and a higher level of sociability–conforms with most of the definitions one might find.
Now that I’ve spent a good deal of time on defining and sorting, why, you might ask, does any of it matter? Why should anyone care about the splitting of hairs in some minor culture battle? Generally, it doesn’t matter and no one should care, since in about twenty years, these words will be relegated to the same obscurity as “square” or “dip.” That is, it’s moot if all we care about is the definition of words. But we don’t, do we? As with so many terms, especially slang, the development of a word is at least as important as its final meaning. I went into excruciating detail about how these words formed, where they came from, and how they evolved and differentiated themselves from similar terms over the past half century. Now that we’ve caught up to the present day, we should keep in mind the kinds of factors that changed these words as we continue to refine and solidify their definitions.
One such factor is branding and popular culture. As discussed earlier, “geek” split from it’s “freak” roots mainly because someone in the mainstream wanted to make a profit off of a large subculture without having to acknowledge the touchier social issues bound to it. Today, nerd/geek culture is in full swing, due in part to the ever increasing need for specialists in various scientific and technological fields–specialists who have a lot of disposable income and who have instant access to a web of likeminded people. That large, monied subculture attracts a lot of attention, and over the past few decades, producers of popular media have begun catering to it.
This poses a couple problems. First, while something might be gained in the translation from subculture to mainstream, something is also going to be lost. We can see this happening now. For better or for worse, there are TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, which portray nerds and geeks in a positive light. Obviously, the characters are stereotypes and the plots are formulaic, but it’s a sitcom fantasy world. Nerds and geeks should appreciate the role-playing aspect to it. If in D&D, one can kill the badass skeletons (all of them), find the magical key to the mystical chastity belt, and rescue the fine-ass lady elf, why shouldn’t a supermodel physicist be able to date a supermodel waitress or supermodel biologist? While the intensity of the social awkwardness gets lost in translation, the definition is gaining a more positive connotation.
The other problem might be called hipsterism, but is really a conflict over ownership. If we take the modern definition of “geek,” which I separated from “nerd” above, it might be more appropriate to say that this is not so much a problem as it is a more modern divergence of the terms. Ideas and genres, among other things, come with cultural capital. As these social phenomena wax and wane in popularity, so does their cultural capital. As creatures of culture (at least more than nerds are), geeks would be more prone to claiming ownership over the subculture. While intelligence and accumulated knowledge might positive, the down side to a battle over ownership is the social awkwardness that defines both cultures. In arguments about these cultures, there is a tendency to bring in the idea of suffering. Like the idea of suffering for one’s art, those who claim ownership over these terms tend to espouse the idea that one isn’t truly a nerd/geek if there hasn’t been some sort of trauma–bullying, severe social awkwardness, a crippling lack of self-confidence, and so on. While there is a limited point to that argument, it sets a weird precedent, encouraging those who want membership in the subculture to adopt the affect of these traumas, and allowing those who have already claimed ownership to be cultural gatekeepers.
The fact that, unlike words describing concrete physicality–black, white, short, tall, blue-eyed, and bald–“nerd” (and “geek”) describes a social perception of a personality type or state of mind. But as long as the world keeps spinning, there will always be a constant shift in perception. A nerd today is not the same as a nerd sixty years ago, or twenty years ago, or ten years ago. It would be ludicrous to expect that calling a 30-year-old person a nerd now would mean the same as it did when he or she was in high school. And for those self-applying the term, it’s best to keep track of how the word has evolved since you first started to use it, so you don’t end up stuck in the past. But if you’re a nerd, you’ve probably already got that taken care of.
My intention here was to draw meaning out of process. There were many more aspects of this issue that I could have tackled, but didn’t because I like to pretend that I have other things to do. I suspect that there were parts of this that were overly dense and scattered, but after several days of looking at this over and over again and not finding a way to restructure it, I decided “to hell with it” and now we’re here.
A list of citations for this monstrosity can be found here.