We’ve all heard the terms many times, especially in our technologically advanced society. Nerds have been with us for generations, geeks, too. They love their electronic toys and they speak a different language from the rest of us.
But what exactly is a geek? How about a nerd? Maybe you are one and don’t even know it! Here is a brief excursion into the strange and weird world of “science freaks.”
The Early Geeks
The first documented use of the word “geek” I could find was in 1916, when the term was used to describe circus sideshow freaks. Generally these performers did strange things like biting the heads off live animals. Their acts were called “geek shows.”
By the 1980’s kids were using the term to describe others who were socially inept — but also deeply interested in the subjects of math and science.
The language origin of the word “geek”is a bit harder to trace. It may come from a Low German word, “geck,” which means a fool or a simpleton. The acronym G.E.E.K., was frequently used by the US army as a shortened form of “General electrical engineering knowledge.” As such, it helped shape the meaning of our current word, which also involves having some scientific knowledge.
The first use of the term “nerd” I could find was in Dr. Seuss’s If I Ran the Zoo, published in 1950. Sometime during the following year Newsweek magazine ran an article in which “nerd” was used the way we currently use it. Of course, in that day it was defined as someone who was a “drip” or a “square.”
From those humble beginnings, use of the term escalated. It probably became most popular in the 1970’s, when it was often used on the hit TV series, “Happy Days.” After that, people across the country started calling the guys with pocket protectors, and a deep interest in science, “nerds.”
Again, tracing the root word from which “nerd” originated is a bit complicated. Some scholars think it may be derived from the word “drunk” spelled backwards (knurd). This may have begun as a description of students who sat home studying on Saturday nights instead of going out with friends to parties and bars. Hence, they were the opposite of drunks.
Another theory has it developing in the 1940’s as a modified form of the word “nut.” At that time the term was “nert,” and it meant a stupid or insane person. Soon after that the term “nerd”was being used in the same way.
So What’s The Difference?
Currently, “geek” is used to describe odd people of any race or gender who enjoy interests generally considered a bit odd. This ranges from a fascination with computers to comic book collecting. Currently it often refers to someone overly concerned with a hobby, fantasy show or game. While many people use the term negatively, referring to someone severely lacking in the social graces, self-confessed geeks generally use it as a source of pride.
The term “nerd” is currently used almost synonymously with “geek,” though some still claim there are differences between the two. From what I could determine in my research, a geek is someone who escapes from the reality of his or her world by entering a fantasy world of some sort (in books, on TV or a computer, etc.). Often they are collectors in that field of interest.
Subclassifications of geeks exist, too. For example, there are science and math geeks, Sci-Fi or fantasy geeks, comic book or video game geeks, and even sports geeks!
Nerds, on the other hand, may be irritating in normal social settings, but they are also intelligent and technologically bright. They are generally obsessed with some non-social pursuit. Prime example: a computer nerd.
Nerd is also used with pride by those who claim it, though their peers may still use it in a negative sense. A nerd typically has a strong aptitude in the sciences and math, but is a bit out of step with his or her culture. Nerds are unique, and their intelligence and quick understanding often sets them apart from society as a whole.
Which Are You?
Hopefully, you can now determine if you are a nerd or a geek – or neither! While it was once considered a great insult to be called either, that all changed by the end of the 20th Century. Young geeks like Bill Gates stepped on the scene, forming famous computer companies and “think tanks” that have changed the world — and our thinking about geeks and nerds — forever.