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May 01 2011

Geek or Nerd?

To geek, or not to geek, that is the question...

I am struggling a bit with this and I am asking for you, my reading public, if neither of you are too busy, to weigh in on this.

What is the difference between a geek and a nerd?

I have always identified myself as a geek and taken the word nerd in a slightly pejorative sense. I questioned myself however when I described a programmer friend of mine as a “quality nerd” last week. I unquestionably meant it as a compliment and it got me to ruminating on the class distinctions we seem to have built in our informal technocracy.

So, like most quality geeks with a question of semantics, I have initially consulted the Googles. They have, of course, referred me back to Wikipedia for the following definitions:

nerd
noun /nərd/ 
nerds, plural; nurds, plural

A foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious
– one of those nerds who never asked a girl to dance

An intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession
– he single-handedly changed the Zero image of the computer nerd into one of savvy Hero

geek
noun /gēk/ 
geeks, plural

An unfashionable or socially inept person

A person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest
– a computer geek

There would appear by these definitions to be a SIGNIFICANT amount of overlap in these terms. Which made me wonder about the wisdom of trying to distinguish them…but folly goes where wisdom founders!

So, perhaps we should take the Venn diagram approach.

Given that the significant difference in these two definitions seems to be the word “boring” perhaps this is the appropriate diagram.

Nerd as a Venn based subset

The appeal of this is to give those of us who lean towards the geek end of this particular paradigm the ability to subset ourselves out of the nerd category and onto relatively safe, although still socially stigmatized ground. To HORRIBLY misquote Gordon Gecko, “Geek is good.”

Unfortunately, I am not quite comfortable with quantifying all nerds as geeks who are boring. There is something in that particular stratification that seems like it would please the hordes of the hopelessly cool who abandoned me in high school to the tender rigors of the chess team.

So, back to the drawing board. Since Venn diagrams seem to sum up the completely impoverished level of cool in my life, I once more sought out the Googles and found this absolutely lovely Venn diagram. Credit goes to cryhavok.com for this graphic.

Honing in on the truth...

The triaxial focus of intelligence, obsession and social ineptitude seems to hone in on the crux of the issue here. I consider myself to be intelligent (that is why I looked up all those $20 words previous to this point in the essay) and I have confessed multiple times to being massively obsessive. You can ask my wife about that, or you can just go back and look at how many backpacks and bags I have reviewed on this blog!

Socially inept? Not so much. I managed to marry far above my station without the threat of violence or the application of mind altering drugs. I can carry on a conversation without embarrassing anyone but my children. I can even speak in public with a reasonable amount of grace.

I think I am fairly comfortable with this segmentation!

To look at it from the other side, which one would I be least appalled to be trapped in a conversation with at a party? DEFINITELY a geek! I am sure we could find some form of obsessive common ground in discussing online gaming in moderation, Moore’s Law or how the two party system is irreparably broken.

Trapped with a nerd, with them betwixt me and the buffet line, stranded with no one near to rescue me? HORRORS! The conversation, when not dominated by them, could drag down into numerous awkward pauses. These pauses would only be broken by starting up on a new incomprehensible topic just as I am about to escape. It sounds like the plot line for a truly twisted Kubrick film. The hair is standing up on my neck as I think about it…

So, in retrospect, I think I owe my programmer friend an apology. Disparagement was never my goal. He is a fine, upstanding citizen, he has found the ultimate way to make his ADD work for him, and he can live on flat food and caffeine for weeks on end.

I just don’t want to be trapped at a party with him.

😉

7 comments

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  1. Wheat Williams

    I think you’re really on to something here. I particularly like the tri-axis of intelligence, social ineptitude and obsession. By that definition, I’m a straight-up-the-middle nerd.

  2. Jeff Mac

    Ah yes, but at least the obsessive character pulls you out of the dweeb camp!

  3. Chris Bednar

    Is it acceptable to place yourself on this chart or is this something that requires a second party to be valid? I am having difficulty admitting to myself that I may more “purple” than I want to admit.

  4. Jeff Mac

    I think it may have to be voted on by a jury of your peers….

  5. John Grabowski

    Thank you for tackling this most important subject. I may be dating myself (no, not like a relationship!) but I’ll keep my nerd badge. Ever since that movie back in the ’80s, we’ve all bin a bit more secure in owning up to our true nature.

  6. Jeff Mac

    Your input on this means a lot to me and I will continue to track the responses…

  7. Ted Bahas

    I am somewhere in the overlapped area, and too ADHD to care!

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