Random Asides

Are You a Nerd or a Geek?

Do you consider yourself a nerd or a geek? Are you both or none? What is your definition of these two words?

CNN.com recently published an article about the nerd vs. geek debate which has some of the interesting history of these two words. However, in their article they asked entertainment celebrities (admittedly, some nerdy/geeky ones such as David X. Cohen of “Futurama” and Kunal Nayyar of “The Big Bang Theory”) about what they thought it meant to be a nerd verses a geek. Certainly, entertainment professionals can be nerdy/geeky (for instance, Felicia Day, the Mythbusters, Phil Plait)… but did CNN not think to ask some scientists? Some students at Caltech, MIT, etc? Some people hanging out on online computer forums? And so on.

So, I’m curious to hear from some scientific and skeptical types. What do you think these words mean? And how many of you are geeking/nerding out about the big announcement from NASA in less than 1 hour?!??!!

As for me? I think I’m a nerd… not quite sure. What do you think?

And, as some inspiration, here’s Weird Al’s “White and Nerdy” Song:


Evelyn is a geologist, writer, traveler, and skeptic residing in Cape Town, South Africa with frequent trips back to the US for work. She has two adorable cats; enjoys hiking, rock climbing, and kayaking; and has a very large rock collection. You can follow her on twitter @GeoEvelyn. She also writes a geology blog called Georneys.

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  1. I think of “nerd” as a general state of being and “geek” as a subject-specific attitude. So a nerd, in general, would be someone with skills that favor intellectual pursuits over social interactions. A geek, on the other hand, is someone who obsesses over a given subject. Math geek, gaming geek, scifi geek. There’s a lot of overlap but it’s possible to be a geek without being a nerd and vice versa.

    I consider myself to be a nerd and I’ve been known to geek-out on a few subjects.

    The NASA news seems to have leaked early. A bacterium that can use phosphorus and arsenic interchangeably? Pretty cool. Might require some hasty changes to the definition of “DNA”.

  2. I see Cohen’s point but I prefer to reclaim “nerd” and “geek” with equal pride, especially since non-nerds generally don’t have the linguistic knowledge to differentiate anyway.

    In other words, if you’re sitting around thinking about the difference, you’re automatically both.

    I’ve also reclaimed other words to frequently refer to myself as a “bitch queen demon goddess” or, as my 5-year-old knows me: “Mum.”

  3. I forget where I heard this, but: “If you care about the difference between a nerd and a geek then you are one”. So I’m labeling myself pretty firmly here. :)

    To me, ‘geek’ implies technology or culture more than ‘nerd’ does, while ‘nerd’ goes better with pure science- ‘computer geek’, ‘math nerd’, ‘SF geek’, ‘biology nerd’, ‘history geek’.

    The shades of meaning get really subtle, however. Unmodified, ‘nerd’ carries the antisocial/asocial stereotype we’re all familar with. The weird part for me is that it also carries that meaning when used when ‘geek’ fits better. It’s not as strong the other way round though.

    A ‘geek’ likes and knows technology, usually electronics.
    A ‘computer geek’ is similar except specializing in computers.
    A ‘computer nerd’ is a greasy basement-dwelling forum troll.

  4. I think caring about the difference between the terms “geek” and “nerd” makes you a linguistics geek. Or nerd. Damnit.

  5. I always think of nerds as being socially awkward for any reason and geeks as being really in to any particular subject. The two words, to me, are not interchangeable and are not mutually exclusive.
    Geekdoms can be stacked as well. For example: you can be a Star Wars geek, and a comic book geek, and a sci-fi geek (almost a necessity for a Star Wars geek), and a drama geek all at the same time. You need not be a nerd to be a geek and you need not be a geek if you are a nerd, but there is plenty of overlap in that Venn diagram.

    Most people have something they are geeky about, but not everyone is a nerd.

  6. I’m a stealth geek.

    I originally made the typo ‘stealth gook’, which means I cannot stop laughing now.

  7. @mrmisconception:

    Randi actually loaned me the movie to watch. I think that makes me a geek geek geek.

    However, I am clearly not a computer geek/nerd. How do these @ symbols work??? Someone please help a technologically-challenged MIT student :-).

  8. ’round here we are pretty much all both.

    @kimberlychapman you should definatly teach your 5 year old to only refer to you as “bitch queen demon goddess”. The expression on teachers faces alone would be worth it.

  9. To me, geek tends to imply non-scholastic subjects, while nerds have an interest in scholastic subjects. This can overlap considerably… I’m a history nerd and a gaming geek. Enough of a gaming geek that I get annoyed at people who call themselves such because they own an X-box. Fuck you, assholes. When’s the last time you built your own gaming box from parts? How many d20s do you own, Mr. “I beat Metal Gear Solid with a hint book so I’m a big geek”? You own any d10s that aren’t chevron sided? How much of your shelf space is gaming books for systems you don’t even play? Hell, when’s the last time you came up with a filk about gaming, and published it proudly?

    To paraphrase another Weird Al video… “You ain’t Geek! You ain’t Nothin’!”

  10. @scribe999

    I was actually refering to the movie Freaks from 1934. It’s a psychological thriller/horror movie about carnival folk. I haven’t seen Logan’s Run in years, do they say it there too? If so I bet it’s a reference to Freaks. I’m going to have to watch it again.

  11. @Evelyn:

    Nor am I any kind of techno-geek. Fiber geek, yes. In fact, I am right now wearing a pin of a sheep wearing a crown and the caption is “Fiber Queen”. A friend gave it to me today. And I’ve been fondling a skein of recycled silk yarn as my stress reliever today.

    And I’m pretty white and nerdy, too. Kind of goes with the territory of a lifetime in academics.

  12. @mrmisconception:

    Damn! You must have posted just before me…

    My mom had TCM on constantly when I was a kid, so I think I am a movie geek by diffusion…

  13. @Evelyn

    The @ symbol shows up when you click the little reply arrow next to the comment number along with a link back to the original post you are commenting on.

    It doesn’t work if you don’t have you browser set correctly, Java settings I believe, or are using Opera 9.51 on a Windows Me machine.

  14. I will answer this question by posting excepts from a conversation I was part of on FB earlier:

    Guy 1: “If it’s so important that Merry’s sword came out of the Barrow, what about Eowyn’s? She stabbed the Witch-king with a sword of no pedigree.

    Me: “A stab thru the mighty sinews of his knee with a barrow-blade and a stab in the incorporeal face with a normal blade are equal?”

    Another dude: “She caught him off-guard with the whole “English is a tricky language” angle and his magic was weakened. Then she blasted him in the face like he was in a Barely Legal video and boom. Eowyn wins. Fatality.”

  15. @Gabrielbrawley

    Gape mouthed the whole time.

    Pre-code Hollywood rules, fuck the Hays Code in its ear. Srsly

    Anyone who thinks Pacino’s Scarface was a badass “needs” to watch the Haward Hawkes 1932 version.

  16. Having been called both, but at different times, nerd 1960s & 1970s and geek ever since, I find that they are probably interchangeable since I haven’t changed in the past 50 years, other than getting older.

  17. Phil Plait is a real scientist, he just happens to be working in the entertainment business right now.

    As for me, I always thought of nerds as science/technology geeks, possibly with fewer social skills but more brains. A subset of the geek universe, as it were.

  18. I’m a geek/nerd, depending on the definition. Being Norwegian I identify most with the nerd label, since the word geek hasn’t been imported into the language even if the reverse word, keeg, has.

    My students love it when I end the class at leet o’clock, and not only because that means leaving three minutes early. (For classes that end at 13:40.)

  19. umm James Randi wrote you a letter of reccomendation to go with your application to MIT.
    I guess you are kind of normal for MIT grad students… but that’s like saying Jojo the Dog Faced Boy is more normal than the siamese piglets in a jar.

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

    I identify with definition 1 more than with definitions 2 & 3. I am definitely more geek than nerd. No pocket protectors here.

  21. @Blotzphoto: I’ve always considered myself a geek. Nerds can do math… I was shocked to discover yesterday that two university grads (BAs each) were unable to work out how many $5 drinks they were going to be able to buy with a $50 bar tab. *sigh* kids these days..

  22. geek = academically/technically focused
    nerd = obsessive over something unpopular
    dork = socially awkward

  23. You can tell my alignment by the handle I chose…. (I even claim to be a nerd on my biz card).

    Meaning of NERD – its an acronym actually, its the New England Rubbish Deconstruction Society. Details here: http://the-nerds.org

    Oh yea, the real difference between geeks and/or nerds, and “normal” people is the location of the “tact” filter. On normal people, it is active on the outgoing stream, so they aren’t insulting unintentionally. On us nerds, its an input filter. We get so much abuse sent our way in our youth, that the filter gets re-purposed.

  24. Clearly, some linguist needs to look at data to figure out how people tend to use these words.

    My impression is that there’s a kind of pride and exclusivity involved in being a geek that isn’t there in being a nerd. For example, Mark Hall‘s annoyance at poseurs within the gaming world. I’m personally too much of a dilettante to call myself a geek, but I like things that the mainstream considers weird (and I don’t care whether hipsters like them or not), so I guess I’m a nerd.

  25. @rjnerd:
    Oh yea, the real difference between geeks and/or nerds, and “normal” people is the location of the “tact” filter. On normal people, it is active on the outgoing stream, so they aren’t insulting unintentionally. On us nerds, its an input filter. We get so much abuse sent our way in our youth, that the filter gets re-purposed.

    That’s an interesting thought …

  26. I consider myself an individual, and we all should. However, people around me may consider me to be a nerd and a geek. I have heard the definition of “nerd” refers to knowledge of science, computers, mathematics… the typical “nerdy” professions. “Geek” on the other hand refers to people who throw themselves, almost obsessively, into a particular interest, which can be a nerdy one. So I am a statistics geek, which also makes me a nerd. But I am also a Star Wars geek (and lots of other sci fi).

    On this topic, I started a website called Faces of Science where I profile people in the scientific profession, but on their non-science lives. Have a look at http://www.faces-of-science.com and if you are a scientist and want to be on there, don’t hesitate to let me know!

  27. @mrmisconception:
    Actually the word you are looking for is javascript, not java

    Javascript is an implementation of ECMAscript. the reason for the similar names (and hence the frequent confusion) is purely because of a marketing deal designed to transfer some of javas popularity to javascript.

    also I refuse to give the words different definitions as too many people have too many different distinctions between the two. So much so that using the words to mean different things is pointless as you then have to sit down and explain what YOU mean when using the two different terms, listen to what THEY think they mean and then the whole point of having two different terms is made moot.

    the only service having the too terms at this point in time is sparking up long winded discussions on the difference between the two terms.

    personally I favour the term geek.

  28. I am a Nerd.
    In the beginning there were only nerds.
    When “they” realized that they needed our help, after insulting us in the 80’s, they had to come with another name, hence, “Geek” ;-)

  29. @kittynh: “I guess you are kind of normal for MIT grad students… but that’s like saying Jojo the Dog Faced Boy is more normal than the siamese piglets in a jar.”


    As much as I love my mother, I do envy Evelyn just a bit for having a mom as cool as you.

  30. I’m not sure – does making references to movies jokes about particle physics whilst playing a mmorpg make me a nerd or a geek? :)

    Or just too sad for words?

  31. A bit of trivia, pause the White and Nerdy song at the point where Wierd Al hold up the Trivial Pursuit game card to read the questions.

  32. When I was in high school, if you were in the band, you were a “band nerd.” If you were in any singing group, you were branded a “choir geek.” I was both, and I still happily accept either term. :P

    If I think of the stereotypical images that come to mind at each word, “nerd” conjures images of DnD and crossword and chess championships, and “geek” entails more of the computer programmer / science buff. So, yeah, I still happily accept either term, lol.

  33. I use both terms. I call myself a nerd when I’m being self-effacing. I call myself a geek when I let my geek flag fly.

    I guess I subscribe to Patton Oswalt’s definition:

    “A lot of nerds aren’t aware they’re nerds. A geek has thrown his hands up to the universe and gone, ‘I speak Klingon — who am I fooling? You win! I’m just gonna openly like what I like.’ Geeks tend to be a little happier with themselves.”

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