A geek is not a nerd. And vice versa. Unless, of course, they are.

A portrait of the author as a young nerd
A portrait of the author as a young nerd

When I was a kid, I wore thick black glasses, long pants that were too short with formal Stride Rite shoes, and walked while looking down into a paperback book. And frequently into things.

I was a nerd.

Today, adults wear thick black glasses, long pants that are cuffed fashionably short with retro sneakers, and walk while looking down into an iPhone. Frequently into things.

These are geeks. But the difference is that theirs is a choice, a matter of style. They, unlike me, were not born this way.

It’s a critical difference. One almost as important as the unresolved Star-Trek-or-Star-Wars debate. And now that everyone is trying to define what lies on either side of the geek/nerd chasm, it’s time for an unabashed life-long, self-identified nerd to resolve this once and for all.

Being a nerd is sitting on a ripe plum that some jock surreptitiously placed on your folding chair at junior high graduation, when you are wearing white slacks. Perversely, it is also being the only guy with the guts to ask the first girl to the floor at the junior high dance, since you know you have nothing to lose by not looking cool. (Because you never will, of course.)

It is the surreal experience of overhearing a jock, one to whom you’ve tried to reach out with reason, rather than be beaten up again, share with his cohort, “Frank’s not a bad guy. You just have to get down to his level.”

It’s the desperation inflicted by this social isolation that drives nerds. To withdraw (as I did) to work on the first West Coast Star Trek convention. Or to take apart and rebuild non-judgmental mechanical machines – and, as the engineering and individual skills improved, electronics kits and later computer and personal technology. To create our own perfect (or, well, perfectly post-apocalyptic, without those annoying and slow-to-understand-us popular people) science fiction and fantasy worlds, whether we wrote them or relived them in role-playing games or other media.

Or to co-found Apple. Or Microsoft. Or Google.

Nerd is to tinker with tech; geek is to admire and acquire. Nerd is innate; geek is learned. But both are self-identified, associated with intelligence and along a continuum with frequent overlap, making external categorization (“oh, look, Martha, it’s of the genus nerdus Redmondus!”) virtually impossible.

One area of common nerd/geek ground
One area of common nerd/geek ground

Many agree with those distinctions, as my request to define the divide in one sentence on nerd-spawned Facebook and Twitter revealed.

“Geeks ogle the toys while the nerds figure out their inner workings in about ten minutes,” wrote one friend.

“Geeks are the consumers of what the nerds are cooking up,” opined another.

“With new tech geeks are like, ‘Let’s reprogram it to make s’mores’ and nerds are like, ‘Whatever, I wrote a better one when I was six’,” chimed in a third.

Uber-tech personality Chris Pirillo cemented that perspective, albeit in his own understated manner: “Nerds love knowledge for the sake of knowledge; geeks love knowledge for the sake of unapologetically making you feel stupid for not having the same level of knowledge as they do.”

Even wikiHow generally agrees, as does a recent scientific (as surely it should be) analysis of tweets.

For those who totally flip the geek and nerd definitions (e.g., “Geeks make cool things. Nerds collect cool things.”) I will rely on historic usage and give nerd the nod for tech savvy. The term dates back decades in its tie to technology. Geeks, on the other hand, haven’t fared so well in the dictionary. As writer Harlan Ellison has noted, geeks were the carnival sideshow performers, sometimes alcoholics, who bit the heads off of live chickens. Leading one friend to determine that, “Nerds will eat the rest.”

A few commenters took a situational-geek approach, as the now-underused term “to geek out” implies: that geeks are passionate about … something. And tech is just the latest object of fanboy desire: “I know a lot of plant geeks, for instance,” responded one, “In addition to food geeks and other genre geeks.”

And a handful of others adopted the “Seriously? This is a thing?” perspective. “All I know is that anyone who cares about the diff between geeks and nerds is either a geek or a nerd,” and, “Nerds and geeks are indistinguishable from one another to an outsider.”

A contemporary nerd in his natural surroundings
A contemporary nerd in his natural surroundings

But one common thread emerged: geek is the current cool/hip/sexy term. And no one, ever, has said being a socially awkward, misfit, inwardly tech-focused nerd is cool. Except to other nerds.

Still, the pain of having grown up a nerd never quite ebbs. It’s in the self-conscious awareness of checking pants lengths obsessively. Of making sure shoes are at least not completely out of style. Of adjusting eyeglasses for proper alignment. I know. I do all of this. While a geek can simply move on to the next cool meme.

I’ve said before that nerds like to tinker while geeks like the lifestyle. Yet I suspect there are few nerds who love the nerd lifestyle, though many have accepted it and are satisfied by its inner rewards.

In the 1987 movie Dirty Dancing, characters share an exchange about the futures of teen sisters Baby and Lisa that’s tattooed on my hind brain. “Baby’s gonna change the world … (And) Lisa’s going to decorate it.”

It may sum up nerds vs. geeks better than I ever could.

Previously on GeekWire:

Comments

  • aaronbrethorst

    I’d say ‘hipster,’ but some geeks also happen to be hipsters. I, for one, am not immune to this with my thick framed black glasses. But, at least I actually do need them to see :P

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      As do I. The wonderfulness about thick black frames is they’re practical, too, since you can spot where your glasses are more easily when you’re not wearing them.

      • Forrest Corbett

        What?! You don’t have a system for where you put your glasses so there’s only a limited number of places to check? ;)

  • Forrest Corbett

    I think you’ve mixed up Geek with Hipster. Pretty much everything you’ve defined as Nerd applies to Geek as well, except Geeks have a bit of social skills to mix in. I think this venn diagram sums it up well: http://www.geekwire.com/2011/geek-pride-day-geek-flag-fly-charts/

    You’re welcome to come to my house and take a tour. I consider myself a geek. I also consider you a geek – a real nerd could never write an article and post it publicly for the world to see ;)

    • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

      I’ve seen the diagram, and while I think hipsters adopt some of the trappings of geeks and nerds, they lack either the obsessive interest or intelligence of one or the other (except in rare cases, which means they ARE geeks or nerds disguised as a hipster). Geeks can be geeks about anything; it’s just that consumer tech is the current bright shiny object of much geek desire, which is why I think geeks are so often confused with nerds today.

      And I appreciate the kind effort to deliver me from nerdom. I suspect I’m a nerd-geek hybrid, with learned geek behavior having come as an adult. After all, the beauty of geek and nerd is you don’t have to be just one.

      • johnhcook

        Let’s create a new word for you Frank. You are a “Gerd.” :)

    • johnhcook

      Funny! :)

  • beowuff

    I’ve always thought of geeks being Nerds that want to share what they are obsessed about. In a way, geeks would be nerds that have some extrovert in them.

    I’ve always considered myself a geek, as if you get me talking about something I’m really interested in, good luck getting me to shut up. Ask my wife! Nerds, on the other hand, always seemed more inclined to not really care about other people and could care less about sharing their knowledge.

    Perhaps this comes from being ostracized by what I considered to be either jocks or nerds while growing up. I didn’t fit in and no one was using the word geek at the time. I claimed it.

    Am I a nerd? Or a geek? Well, I don’t really know, but if you’re interested in talking about the TARDIS vs the Heart of Gold, send me an email.

    • beowuff

      Gah! COULDN’T care less (hangs head in shame.)

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

        Okay, that’s proof: You ARE a geek. A grammar geek. (Says the nerd who, in response to a Starbuck barista’s “How are you doing?” this morning, replied “Good,” then immediately corrected it to, “I mean, well.”)

  • JoeS4

    Nerds are smart. Geeks just think they are. Nerds design semiconductors and nuclear reactors. Geeks read comic books and watch cartoons as adults.

  • Jason Truesdell

    In my generation, nerd usually meant someone who learned lots of stuff and was socially awkward, whereas a geek was focusing more on doing things with that knowledge, and was probably socially awkward. It wasn’t necessarily mutually exclusive. The dictionary definition involving circus freaks reinforces that interpretation because the geek has a marketable skill or talent.

  • robert wilber

    I’ve been saying I was a geek but, your clarification helped me realize I am a nerd or have nerd tendencies always wondering how things work and an unending thirst for knowledge yet, I did not follow the nerd path. I say that even at this late date I can’t allow anymore the opinions of others hold me back nor my own lack of belief in myself I must heard my thoughts be made known. It is like a coming out the closet.

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