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Geek or Nerd: The Labeling Game

Are you a geek? How about a nerd? These two words have generated significant, often heated debate throughout the years, especially within the past decade or two. Are they really that different? And where did the words originate?

The Original Geek

Believe it or not, the word “geek” used to have a much more negative connotation that it does today. In the early 1900s, a geek was someone who worked in the circus, doing strange or grotesque feats. If a guy made a living from swallowing insects whole, biting off the body parts of live animals, or something equally disgusting, he was a geek.

After a while, the word morphed into an expression meaning someone strange and creepy, someone who lived outside mainstream society. A geek was the guy living on the edge of town, prowling around and peeking in windows at night.

The Arrival of the Nerd

Over the next couple of decades, “geek” transitioned to mean someone odd, yet intelligent. At one time, it was nearly synonymous with “nerd.” “Nerd” cropped up first as a nonsense word in a 1950s Dr. Seuss book called If I Ran the Zoo, and it quickly crept into popular slang usage. Its meaning at first was more akin to “fool” or “square,” but it eventually came to mean someone extremely intelligent, yet very socially awkward. Like the late 90s term “gearhead,” it meant the kind of person who invented things, created tons of computer code, enjoyed high-level math, or did crazy scientific experiments. Or possibly all three.

As recently as the early 2000s, either “nerd” or “geek” was a slur, a word that a bully might hurl at a classmate. People did not enjoy being dubbed “geeks” or “nerds.”

Expanding Definitions

Today, although “nerd” is still somewhat negative, the term “geek” has a more positive connotation. In fact, many people wear the “geek” label with pride and refer to themselves as “geeks.” What’s the difference? Now, the term designates someone with a strong interest in something, who also possesses abundant knowledge about that topic. It refers to fascination on a level that approaches obsession. There are computer geeks who are experts with tech, Star Wars geeks who know countless random bits of trivia, and a million other types of geek.

Culture and the Geek

While the term can apply to a broad variety of interests, there is a definite “geek culture.” Since it is constantly morphing and shifting, it is difficult to define. Let’s just say that it may involve the Lord of the Rings, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Star Wars, ComicCon, Dr. Who, Marvel comics, huge gaming rigs, a love of ancient cultures, and an ambition to see technology advance. Think the “Big Bang Theory,” and you have a fairly accurate picture of modern geek culture.

So are you an intelligent, invested “nerd” or a social, savvy geek? Maybe you feel like you’re a little bit of both. Maybe you should create a brand-new label. Or perhaps it’s time to move beyond the labels altogether.

About John Martinus

John Martinus has been in and around the tech industry for 15 years. He has a lot of experience since the early days of the internet. He lives in Southern California and when he's not writing tech articles he is hiking or surfing.

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