26 January 2013

Geek vs. Dork vs. Nerd

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I'm the sort of person who happily self-identifies as both a "geek" and a "dork," but as soon as someone tries to call me a "nerd" I'll vehemently deny it. Why?

Because I'm also a pedant, though I've come to realize that my pedantry in this particular area may be a lot more subjective than I used to think. To me, the terms "geek," "dork," and "nerd" have always had distinct meanings and I had assumed that was generally understood. But after years of issuing my prescriptivist rant on the subject to the rolling eyes but blessedly patient ears of my friends and acquaintances, I've noticed that most people seem content to use the terms interchangeably.

Now, if I were a reasonable human being I might admit defeat and drop the subject. But I'm stubborn, so I've stuck to my guns and will continue sticking to them. I think it's much more useful for the terms to have their own distinct definitions than for all of them to be vaguely synonymous—plus the differences among them just seem too self-evident to ignore (even if it turns out that's only a result of my subjective experiences). So I'll keep on making my case to any kind soul patient enough to listen—and now it's your turn, fine folks of the internet.

As I said, these definitions have always seemed pretty apparent to me, though it's only been in the last several years that I've attempted to put them concisely into words.

If you ask me...

...a geek is someone who has an abnormally intense interest in a particular subject.

Sometimes people who are really into computers try to claim this term for only themselves, but I say they are merely one category of geek. In addition to computer geeks you can also have comic book geeks, film geeks, music geeks, sci fi geeks, board game geeks and on and on. Whatever their chosen subject, a geek has a strong devotion to and deep knowledge of it. While the subjects I mentioned are useful as broad categories, I think most geeks are actually much more focused in their interests on an individual level. That's not to say there aren't folks who are broadly "sci fi geeks," but I think most identify more specifically, as "Star Wars geeks" or "Star Trek geeks" for example.

Now, there are certain subjects that some might consider inherently geeky, like comic book superheroes. And so a person who saw and enjoyed one of the Marvel superhero movies might be tempted to call themself a geek, but liking one or two aspects of a subject does not a geek make. A real geek is defined by their passion and commitment to their chosen subject, often to a degree that seems strange or even unhealthy to the casual observer. For instance, plenty of people enjoy the Star Wars films and might even think themselves a bit geeky for being able to name most of the main characters, but how many of them know off the top of their head that this alien that appears briefly in the cantina scene of A New Hope:

is a Talz from Alzoc III, and that that one in particular is named Muftak? If I were to tell you that I in fact did know that, you might think that's a bit pathetic. And that's kind of my point. Geeks are REALLY into the things they like, to an almost (or totally) absurd degree in some cases.

As you're reading this you might be starting to get a bit of a hipster-ish vibe from my attitudes. And though it pains me a bit, I can't deny that there are definitely parallels between geeks and hipsters. Both groups tend to look down on "mainstream" opinions of their chosen subjects and both have the annoying tendency to try to one-up people they view as less committed by trying to prove that they know more or knew something first. But I think the big difference between the two groups is passion. In my opinion, geeks are genuinely passionate about their subjects, whereas hipsters are just looking for a superficial way to set themselves apart from others. A hipster is constantly socially aware and adjusts their behaviors in the light of how it'll cause others to view them, but a real geek doesn't care what people think about their interests and won't let the worry of becoming a social pariah affect their passion.

I think there are also some interesting similarities between geeks and fans of more mainstream subjects like sports, but I'll save my thoughts on that for another post.

...a nerd is someone who has an excessive concern for their academic performance.

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Many people want to get good grades, but I think a nerd goes further by strongly tying their sense of identity and self-worth to how well they do in school.

In the past I've been tempted to define a "nerd" as essentially a "school geek," but again I think there's something to be said for passion. I've known plenty of people who were very concerned with getting good grades who in my opinion didn't actually find any joy in the subjects they were studying. They were only interested in memorizing enough about a subject to get an A and then they were done with it. That's not how geeks operate, so I can't call the whole thing a category of geek.

That's not to say that all nerds are dispassionate, however. In fact, the majority may have a genuine interest in the things they study. And of course some of them are going to be particularly passionate about one or two subjects. But in my opinion the latter is evidence of them also being a geek, in addition to being a nerd. So while someone might be a nerd because they generally strive to perform well academically, they might also be a math geek or a literature geek due to their commitment to a subject beyond the simple desire to get good grades.

You also don't have to be a nerd in order to be a geek of an academic subject. For instance, I consider myself a biology geek but, as I've said, I don't consider myself a nerd. And that's because—even in light of the fact that learning is probably the thing that brings me the most joy—I was a rubbish student. I couldn't stand school and I wasn't terribly concerned with getting good grades (nor did I often get them), so I don't qualify as a nerd.

...a dork is someone who is socially inept.

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Clearly there is plenty of overlap, and many geeks and nerds are also socially inept, and thus dorks. But not necessarily. There are plenty of them who manage to be perfectly sociable and even charming, so we can't simply say the terms are synonymous.

There are of course plenty of other terms that people often think of as synonyms for "dork," such as "dweeb" and "doofus," and in those cases I'll relent. I think they also just describe someone who is awkward and uncomfortable in social situations.

Now, given that I've separated those traits out from the definitions of "geek" and "nerd" to make those terms more neutral, you might assume that I see "dork" as entirely pejorative. But that's not the case and, like the other two terms, I think it's one that should be embraced. Few people are totally socially inept, and so while they might struggle in some situations, they typically get along just fine in others. And what social ineptitude a person does have isn't necessarily completely negative, as some people find it endearing. Hell, I know some of my awkwardness has been directly misinterpreted as charm. :P

Quiz Time

Okay, now that we've established how I define the three terms, lets take a look at a few people—real and fictional—and think about which of the terms might apply to each:

Napoleon Dynamite
Geek? Arguably yes. He seems to have a keen interest in mythological creatures and martial arts, but he doesn't really seem at all knowledgeable of them. I think the strongest argument for his geekiness is actually the brief bit of him we see at the Future Farmers of America convention. So, a dairy geek, perhaps?

Nerd? I'd say no. He's clearly none-too-bright, and tater tots seem to easily take precedence over his schoolwork.

Dork? Oh good god yes. He's basically the epitome of dorkiness, and is virtually hopeless when it comes to social situations.

George Takei
Geek? Yup. Far from simply acting in a series with a large geek following, he also has a genuine interest in it himself, and has become something of an icon for all sorts of geeky pursuits.

Nerd? I'm not sure. I don't know enough about his personal history to know how much of an emphasis he put on academic performance.

Dork? Nope. He's incredibly personable and outgoing.

 Sheldon Cooper
Geek? Yes. He has several areas of geekiness, but his primary one appears to be comic book superheroes.

Nerd? Very much so. He's a perfectionist and doesn't accept failure, particularly of the academic sort. And his self-worth is obviously tied up in his academic performance.

Dork? Clearly. In fact, as many have noted, his ineptitude in social situations seems to go past the point of a simple lack of composure or confidence and into the realm of diagnosable Asperger's Syndrome.

So there you have it. I'd be interested to know how your understanding of the terms may differ from my own. I think mine strike a pretty good balance between intuitiveness and practicality, but you're welcome to disagree.

Also, I should point out that I haven't laid this all out because I think there needs to be more categorization of human beings. I'd really like to see less of that, and perhaps the fact that I've been able to disassemble what some might view as a single category into three separate ones, each with its own scale of degrees, actually helps to demonstrate that we all exist along spectra rather that fitting into discrete groups. But also, this isn't intended to be a field guide for others to use in identifying geeks and nerds and dorks. It's more meant to be a demonstration of the terms being used in straightforward and non-negative ways so that the folks whom these terms describe might feel a bit more comfortable in owning the terms themselves and embracing who they are.

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