Which are you, a geek or a nerd? Have you ever thought about the difference? Personally, this is not something I had ever considered until I ran across people who had very strict definitions of who could use the word geek to describe themselves. I tended to use the words interchangeably, though never with the same sort of negative connotations that people used when we were children.
I have always thought of myself within these categories. As an adult, I have learned that I am quite happy and comfortable with who I am even though for most of my life I have found myself among people who make me feel different, who point out how I am different from them. They weren’t mean, just realistic I suppose.
I remember being in school and seeing kids teased daily for their habits, their looks and their interests. I was teased too, but I don’t recall ever being called a geek or a nerd. Kids with glasses were nerds or geeks—a huge stereotype but nonetheless, it’s the way it happened. Eventually, you grow up and leave the trifles and narrow-mindedness of the schoolroom behind you (in theory, but not reality). I have known people who find the use of these little words to be bothersome, even as adults. The sting of childhood taunting can remain fresh for a long time, no matter the severity, and any reference to them brings back old memories with a vengeance.
I’m pretty certain that we have all experienced this in some form or another and it leaves its mark on us in a variety of ways. I have a friend who would quickly and consistently correct me if I referred to myself as a nerd in casual conversation. Instead, this friend urged me to say that I am unique and would remind me that I am unique. This friend’s dislike of these words is intriguing because it reminds me of the power that words possess. The whole “sticks and stones,” rhyme is grossly inaccurate.
A person’s dislike of these words is made doubly interesting due to the growing crowds of people who choose to embrace these words and to wear them as an emblem. Contrary to my friends who dislike the words geek and nerd, I also have friends who refer to themselves as such with pride. Human beings are naturally inclined to typify and classify things and these words are used despite the fact that they can be polarizing due to their past uses to marginalize, taunt or tease. The fact that the powers that be have chosen to embrace those same words that were turned upon us with spite as children is particularly telling and expresses a concerted effort by members of these communities to embrace and glorify those traits which set them apart and thrust them towards the world with pride as if to say, “This is who I am. This is how I am unique, different, and special.”
I didn’t learn about the distinction between geek and nerd until recently. I went to lunch with a couple of friends who classify themselves as geeks. One friend has a room in her house dedicated to her Star Wars™ memorabilia collection. The other has a room dedicated to superheroes. As we were chatting, I also referred to myself as a geek. When I said this, they paused and then proceeded to inform me that no, I in fact was not a geek. I am a nerd. They explained that a geek is someone who has an obsessive interest in something, hence their respective interests in Star Wars™ and superheroes. A nerd, on the other hand, refers more to someone who is more “academically inclined.” I am thus a nerd due to my interests in reading, in Gothic literature and in the study of literature in general.
When you Google® the word Geek, you find the definition as follows: “a person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest.” The word Nerd brings up the following definition: “an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession.” Various other definitions elaborate on the details of those interests in the same way that the definition that my friends offered to me does.
Despite the members of the geek and nerd communities embracing the titles that others have thrust upon them, there is still a large stigma against them. The following Venn diagram and infographic that I found via a Google search express and classify geeks and nerds based on their individual traits, but also their obsession and abilities to socialize. Both of these diagrams are based on unfair and hurtful stereotypes that the current members of the targeted communities are challenging.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended Kansas City’s “Nerd Nite” at a bar in Midtown. I was treated to interesting lectures on storytelling, teaching yourself to be a visual learner, and beer. The group of us in attendance was small, but we were excited to attend the event and to be there united under the banner of the word nerd. I learned a lot and frankly, I can’t wait until the next event in July.
“Nerd Nite” is significant for the sake of this post because the name of the event itself. The people who conceived of the concept of “Nerd Nite” made a conscious decision of selecting such a polarizing word for the name of the event. They wanted to attract people of a particular segment of the local population and they wanted to bring those people together for a fun night of learning and socializing.
The same pride I shared with my fellow audience members is the mark of a growing trend among we nerdy/geeky types and it palpable to the point that the actual difference between a geek and a nerd has become of pivotal importance to certain individuals who classify themselves as one or the other. The distinction between geek and nerd is important because it is a mark of the effort that members of these communities have made to embrace and change the meaning of the words that were once used to cause pain.
The fact that the rest of society does not really differentiate between the concept of geekdom and nerdom is interesting because it suggests that the transformation of these words and the perceptions that go along with them are still in transit. The thesaurus lists both of these words as being synonyms of one another. And at the basis, they are. But to the people who categorize themselves in such a fashion, there is a much deeper and important differentiation between those of the geek and nerd categories. And according to those individuals, they are a poor choice as a synonym.
So, in closing, which one are you? A geek? Or a nerd? And if you fit into one of these categories, you surely have other traits and facets that are of importance and not a part of one category or the other. How do you define yourself both within and beyond these terms?