This existential question was posed to me last year by a friend. He had recently read an article in the New York Times where the writer used these terms interchangeably.
My friend felt strongly that the two terms referred to slightly different people and checked his Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary that indicated that “the words do not mean the same kind of person, although to my surprise nerd includes ‘unattractive’ person in the definition and geek does not, which I would have thought was the other way around.”
To my mind, most people would give a geek a slightly higher status than a nerd. While both terms imply obsession with a particular activity, for me the obsession that the geek possesses comes with knowledge of his subject whereas I don’t necessarily regard the nerd as being equally knowledgeable. As well, I view a geek as more hireable than a nerd. Although the terms “computer nerd” and “computer geek” are often interchangeable, I wouldn’t describe Mark Zuckerberg as a computer nerd but only as a computer geek.
What I am reflecting here is not so much the actual meaning of these words but the way in which I and every speaker employs particular words. I know people who ascribe a higher status to the term nerd than to geek.
Dictionaries are not that helpful in settling this debate. OED defines “nerd” as “an insignificant, foolish, or socially inept person; a person who is boringly conventional or studious” whereas the Encarta World English Dictionary (EWED) characterizes a nerd as “an offensive term that deliberately insults somebody’s, especially a man or boy’s social skills or intelligence.”
It also mentions that a nerd can be a “single-minded enthusiast.” For “geek,” the OED says “Frequently depreciative. An overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit” and EWED says a “geek” is “someone who is considered unattractive and socially awkward.”
One can see from these definitions that some people would view the two terms as synonymous and others would not.
In any case I believe that due to the fact that many people who were labeled geeks or nerds in high school went on to become very wealthy imparted a higher status to these words. After all, being a billionaire is seen as cool in society notwithstanding that the billionaire may be a geek or a nerd. Both words have interesting etymologies. The first OED citation of geek is in 1876 in a glossary of words from northern England where it is defined as “a fool, a person uncultivated; a dupe.”
It was also used in the United States for a good part of the 20th century to refer to circus performers who performed bizarre feats such as biting off the head of a chicken. Its first usage in the modern context occurs in a letter written in 1957 by writer Jack Kerouac and the word is used in a clearly depreciative manner: “unbelievable number of events almost impossible to remember, including… Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students and big geek questions to answer.” The origin of the word is uncertain but it is generally believed to be a variation for the word “geck,” a word that arose in the 16th century to refer to a simpleton.
The word “nerd” appears to have been derived from a fictional animal found in Theodore Geisel’s (aka Dr. Seuss) story If I Ran the Zoo written in 1950. This creature was depicted as a small, unkempt, humanoid creature with a large head and a comically disapproving expression. The following year Newsweek magazine stated, “In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.” The term, however did not become popular until the late 60s when it became a shibboleth among college students and surfers to mark those considered “uncool.”
P.S. I have no intention of changing the name of this column from Word Nerd to Geek Freak.
Howard Richler’s latest book is Wordplay: Arranged and Deranged Wit