Geek or Nerd?

July 28th, 2009 45 Comments

Ethanol molecule, read to find out whyOver OraTweet last week, I gently corrected an old friend of mine when she called those of us using Oracle’s mirco-blogging tool “nerds”. We’re not nerds. We’re geeks.

This person hails originally from Eastern Europe, so the nuances and cultural connotations of the two aren’t part of her DNA. Being the quizzical type, she asked for clarification, which I struggled a bit to describe, and eventually, she sent over this post, which does a good job outlining the differences.

Being a recovering (in my own mind) nerd, I can relate to the main difference Matt Blum points out, namely the social ineptitude of the nerd. While nerds and geeks are both smart and usually technically inclined, nerds fail at social interaction.

Plus, the Hollywood stereotypes haven’t done nerds any favors. Geeks, on the other hand, are generally portrayed in a much better light. Exhibit A, Hackers. Just saying, even if the script isn’t very, um, plausible, accurate, believable, the casting tells you all you need to know.

The difference intrigues me. I actually had a similar one over Twitter with some Portlanders that I know about a year ago, and they agreed that geeks pwn nerds.

Being a geek is a badge of honor applied to oneself. Nerd is an insult applied to other people.

Interestingly, nerds don’t always evolve (loosely applied) into geeks, and there’s no prerequisite path from nerd to geek. I suspect Chet, who played baseball at the University of Florida, would characterize himself as a geek now, but somehow I doubt he is a reformed nerd.

So, aside from social interactions, what else differentiates geek from nerd?

There must be a cool component in there too. As Matt mentions, the desirability of technical skills makes the geek less, well, nerdy. People respect the skills.

Nerds have these skills too, but without the ability to be approachable or have a comfortable conversation, they remain on the fringes. I remember one hilarious encounter with a nerd in college. He did not drink, but had eaten a peanut that had alcohol splashed on it. Don’t ask.

He spent the next 20 minutes debating his relative BAC after imbibing the tainted nut. Not kidding. His dissertation centered around the molecular structure of alcohol and its effects on his body. Wow. Just wow. I wish I had that on video. It was one of many great discussions (ahem, lectures) I had with that guy.

I picture him in a lab coat, working at some government facility, engineering bio-warfare weapons to use on me, probably revered as a demigod among his lab-coat-wearing peers, but not so much in the real world.

So, maybe a geek has generally marketable skills, i.e. making computers work is more in demand from the real world than engineering chemical weapons?

Anyway, this is an open discussion. Find the comments and add your thoughts on Geeks vs. Nerds: Bloodbath. Guess I’m in a Hollywood mood.


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45 Responses to “Geek or Nerd?”

  1. daniela Says:

    Hey I feel the nuances between the words. I just wanted your perspective :)

  2. chet Says:

    ORACLENERD rolls off the tongue better. Besides, I don't think I've ever been in a conversation (until now) about the differences between nerds and geeks. And by “played” baseball I usually mean, 1) I had really good seats to all the games and 2) I got to wear a uniform. Back then I was a baseball nerd (err, geek).

    For me the two words are intertwined, geek and nerd. Social (in)abilities don't come into it. They're found all across the spectrum, defined by me, as someone who can talk about nothing else but their current field of interest. Oracle has been good to me, but I do have other (suprisingly) interests and can talk about a fairly wide range of topics. I had friends that I played baseball with that could talk about nothing but baseball (sadly).

    Is there a word for fairly well-rounded? Is that a geek?

  3. Jake Says:

    OK, well, based on your reply, I figured it was an understandable gap. If you understood, you must have been trying to start trouble then :)

  4. Jake Says:

    Dunno, I like ORACLEGEEK just as much.

    There are types of nerds, as you mention, comic book nerds, sports nerds, etc. You make an interesting point about inability to talk outside the area of specialty/interest. That's probably another characteristic.

    You're being modest about baseball. Playing at the Division I level ain't something everyone can do, especially at a program like Florida. I almost called you a jock, almost.

  5. jpiwowar Says:

    Can't tell you how much I appreciate this post. My wife and I have had a long-running non-hostile disagreement about the geek/nerd dichotomy, wherein she insists that it's the other way around: geeks are nerds w/o social skills, the “nerdy” label is a badge of honor, the geeks are the ones that never leave the lab to blink owlishly in the light of the daystar, etc., etc.

    I'd mostly let it go, because I figured:
    1) She's an MIT grad, so she should know from nerds.
    2) I'm married, she's the wife, I should know when to say when.

    Kind of comforting to know that I wasn't completely off-base, after all. Regardless of label, I struggle to stay on the plus side of the social axis. It's a process. ;)

    Other random bits:

    I was going to point out that Oracle Geek was taken by the great Lewis C, but then I double-checked, and saw that he uses the more general “Database Geek.” Chet, if you're up for a re-branding exercise, I think you're in the clear.

    Jake, if you call Chet a jock, is he permitted to call you a social media guru? ;-)

  6. chet Says:

    No, I just call him an expert…which riles him up just fine.

    Good work there in regards to your wife, a happy wife is a happy life. Plus, MIT? How'd you swing that?

  7. chet Says:

    OK, I'm humble most of the time. When I talk baseball though, especially at UF, I don't think I have a “good” story. OK, one. I did get Todd Walker (LSU) to ground into a double play with the 1 out the bases loaded. I think he won the Triple Crown in the SEC that year. Only to follow it up with the next inning by giving up a grand slam to the guy who was 0 for his last 31. Andrian Antonini was his name…at least they went on to win the CWS that year.

  8. Jake Says:

    Interesting argument, nerd may be a badge of honor among nerds, but AFAIK, it's an insult in gen-pop.

    Chet can call me whatever he likes. Jocks get that privilege :)

  9. Jake Says:

    Todd Walker's pitching was not his ticket to the bigs. qed.

  10. Jake Says:

    +1 for happy wives. Didn't John go to CMU? I don't want to play Trivial Pursuit with them, or anything other than lawn darts, maybe bocce.

  11. jpiwowar Says:

    Nah, no CMU for me. I went to the semi-public institution down the street. Which isn't to say there aren't a lot of big brains at Pitt, just that I wasn't one of 'em. :-) Trivial Pursuit's a mixed bag; I have a freakish memory for that sort of stuff, but it's streaky and unreliable.

  12. jpiwowar Says:

    >MIT? How'd you swing that?

    Even ridiculously smart people make occasional errors in judgment, even when asked important questions with life-altering implications. I count that particular blessing daily. :-)

    Even better, all the pressure's off: “You're the brains, sweetheart.”

  13. Jake Says:

    Pitt's no slouch either. PGH has a nice little corridor of academia going on there. I'm the same way w/TP.

  14. Jake Says:

    That would make you a geek based on Matt Blum's definition. You fell in love with and married a non-geek.

    How does that not being the brains thing work out when there's a busted computer? Really, I'd like to borrow that logic.

  15. chet Says:

    >”You're the brains, sweetheart”

    I do that mostly, except with math for some strange reason. Honey, what's 2 + 2? 5? WTF? When it comes to writing/reading/comprehension…there's no comparison. She goes through 250 page book in less than a day and can tell you all about it. I figured she would be a good investment.

  16. chet Says:

    Lawn darts are awesome!

    I was tortured by my neighbor in Ocean Springs, MI when I was around 5 or 6.

  17. chet Says:

    So does this make us nerds or geeks? The 3 of us (with a brief visit from Daniela) having a conversation on this blog?

  18. jpiwowar Says:

    Well, as an EE/CS major, she mostly takes care of her own kit, but since I'm in the IT biz, I get an occasional consulting request. Helps me feel useful around the house, especially now that she's switched to OS X. :-)

  19. jpiwowar Says:

    Interpolating from Jake's peanut anecdote and various tweets about beer, I think it makes us geeks.

  20. chet Says:

    using a 5 syllable word definitely qualifies you.

  21. jpiwowar Says:

    *shrug* You counted 'em. :)

  22. Chris Dillon Says:

    The use of the words are important. Geeks have skills that land you jobs and productivity. Nerds have skills that are arcane and actually useless. That said, everyone has their nerdy hobby that doesn't have any utility. Take Star Trek. Star Trek is nerd. Speaking Klingon doesn't have any use. Knowing the ins and outs of D&D is useless. That's nerd.

    Geeks have the same kind of weird social patterns as the nerds but they have some skill that actually does something useful. When you say “Database Nerd”, you are really saying geek. Using geek and nerd by themselves is a summation of the whole person.

    You can be a “database nerd” and a “WoW nerd”. but say the massive weight of DB knowledge and career accomplishment on the DB side will outweigh the nerdiness and as a whole, you'd be considered a geek. If you collect toys, figures, comic books and have no real interest in productivity or utility, then you're venturing into nerd territory (hey diff strokes/diff folks).

    My rule system kinda falls apart when you introduce sports/exercise. Jogging doesn't land you a job but fights nerd. If you introduce sports/fitness, a three metric system emerges: jock/nerd/geek. :)

  23. Jake Says:

    I think we're geeks. Self-perception is what matters, right?

  24. Jake Says:

    Interesting. I tend to agree that geeks have skills useful in the real world, e.g. technical skills. Also, your point about the parts and whole validates what Chet was saying about nerdy pursuits/hobbies.

    So, you can be a geek and a comic book nerd at the same time.

    I think you can extend nerd to fitness and sports too. Some people's sports obsessions put them in the nerd category, e.g. football nerd. The football nerd dissects play calls against defensive packages, etc. from the couch. The football geek gets paid to do this.

  25. uvox Says:

    I agree the term “nerd” is not good – in any context. Over this side of the pond, the techie insider term I suppose would be “Anorak”. Wait, those three letters in the middle of “anorak” – o-r-a… it's a sign…

    … yeah, I know. I need to get out more.

  26. joel garry Says:

    I had a roomate in college, he published a dungeon & dragons newsletter – mimeographed. (1976) He had a vanity license plate on his car “THNERD” which he claimed was a funny word pronounced as a single syllable. He was more social than me, at least among the D&D crowd. I ran into him a decade later, he was a successful landscape architect. Yes, designing fantasy worlds can lead a viable occupation.

    There was a nerdy guy in my high school, he went on to become an electrical engineer. I was amazed to see his picture in the paper one day. He was unable to find a job after being laid off, so was laying on the ground in front of a building of a large company, playing the tuba, with a please hire me sign.

    I at least pretended to be cool, though I was never a social butterfly, and I didn't pick on nerds. Once I was in the workaday IT world, that pretense became much more difficult. Eventually, I came to embrace geekdom.

    Happy birthday, Wil Wheaton.

  27. joel garry Says:

    Grindhouse 3: Below the Valley of the Planet of TronGeek's revenge.

  28. Jake Says:

    Speaking of Tron, I hear there was quite a stir at Comic Con when they showed trailers of the new one. Sounds sweet. Always thought the first one was awesome.

  29. Jake Says:

    Geek isn't in the parlance over there? I thought that was in the Queen's English too, or maybe the word still refers to those who bite off chicken's heads in the QE . . .

  30. Jake Says:

    Nice one, makes Chris' point about nerdy pursuits applied to real jobs. What better way to design meat space landscapes than to do it for fun?
    I wonder if his designs feature caves . . .

    Is today his birthday? I'm new to the whole Wil Weaton is a geek meme; it's been going around a lot here in PDX lately. Maybe I'm not as big a geek as my wife and parents would have me believe.

  31. chet Says:

    There's a new Tron? WIN!

  32. chet Says:

    I proudly refer to myself as a nerd, by the definitions above (namely social abilities), I am not.

    I've re-claimed the word for nerds around the world!

    Dramatic? Yes.

    (no nerds or geeks were harmed during the posting of this comment)

  33. Jake Says:

    I think your nerd brethren would disagree.

  34. topperge Says:

    Sadly Chris and I have actually debated this for hours. We'll throw out a topic and debate its geek / nerdiness.

  35. Jake Says:

    It's a tough one to explain, but I think we've done a good job here. Anyway, maybe W3C can codify it or something for us.

  36. joel garry Says:

    Cubemate this morning bought in a dvd for someone who has never seen it. I remember ditching work with a consultant, and we went to this huge theater in Century City, sitting in the very center, since there was only us and apparently a few guys from TRW who were sitting way up front.

    Check out the marketing section of the tron legacy wikipedia entry.

  37. Jake Says:

    Should be awesome. Tron is underrated.

  38. tardate Says:

    Had this conversation with my better half too;-)
    We agreed to compromise on: geek = nerd + EQ

  39. Jake Says:

    EQ means etiquette?

  40. tardate Says:

    as in: Emotional intelligence Quotient

    so maybe geek = emo nerd;-)

  41. Jake Says:

    I like it.

  42. oraclenerd Says:

    I think it has been settled by this Venn Diagram.

  43. Jake Says:

    I saw that and thought of this very thread. Great minds . . .

  44. frank Says:

    So what do you call those annoying people who pretend to be all ‘tech savvy’ yet in actual fact basically know nothing about it? You know, they’re the ones who usually pride themselves with having the latest tech and being upto date with the latest tech etc. They usually then go on to recite some generic blog post or info they read on the net about said tech and then try and blab on about ‘quantum mechanics’ mid-conversation when they can’t even do basic algebra.

    Alot of them seem to end up in low level IT jobs or office jobs. I.e. IT customer support, generic admin role at engineering firm etc.

    So these people aren’t really true nerds or geeks? What are they then? Wanna-be geeks? So many unresolved questions!

  45. Jake Says:

    There are definitely levels of geeks and nerds. I’ve taken to calling myself a nerd over the past half-decade to avoid the recent coolness of being a geek. On the one hand, it’s nice to see intelligence gain some acceptance, probably too little-too late, but on the other, it leads to the problem you cite.

    I hesitate to use a pejorative term, given that I’ve lived through decades of being called nerd in an unflattering context, but yeah, poseur comes to mind :) On the upside, we can hope this people spend time to gain a real understanding and learn real technical skills.

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