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Nerds vs Geeks

In my line of work, the words 'nerd' and 'geek' are often heard. In most cases, the terms are used to reflect respect and endearment, rather than a put-down. But the words can be used with unclear reference and often are mixed up in meaning. Not surprisingly, my prized 1956 Second Edition Webster's English Dictionary is unclear on the subject. This is mostly due to the fact that neither word exists within its 2,127 definitional pages. So, let's take a shot at it ourselves, shall we...

In my mental dictionary, the terms both have a relationship to technical prowess. Even my Mom uses them in my reference, and Mom would never say anything nasty to me, so they have to be a positive thing, right? They both have a reference to over-achievement and knowledge, but they aren't exactly the same.

To sort this all out, I suggest we turn to the one true source of indisputable knowledge....the entertainment industry.

A decade ago, Comedy Central ran a game show called "Beat the Geeks". It was a fairly basic trivia quiz show that featured contestants matching wits with individuals (the 'Geeks') who possessed exceptional knowledge in a specific area such as: music, movies, or television. This definition strayed beyond the technical, indicating that geeks could exist beyond the computer industry.

The term 'nerd' is said to have originated in the 1950 Dr. Seuss book "If I Ran the Zoo". Its meaning quickly became associated with awkwardness and social incompetence. In the 1984 movie "Revenge of the Nerds", a group of college friends banded together against their stereotypical nerdiness, to rise up against the cool kids and jocks of the school. I won't spoil the entire movie plot for you, as I'm sure it's on your must-see list.

In the intersection of nerd and geek, Ashton Kutcher co-produced a show called "Beauty and the Geek", which partnered intellectually but not socially strong males with their inverse (socially gifted, but not intellectually gifted females). The premise was to work through tasks as a couple while learning the life lesson that we're all basically the same, and stereotypes shouldn't dominate our views of each other. The show had a multi-season run, and was surprisingly interesting. The geeks specialized in areas from medicine, to computers, to chess, proving once again that geeks come with a wide range of specialties.

So, while there is an overlap between nerd and geek, particularly in the technical disciplines, nerds tend to lean towards social awkwardness, while geeks tend to lean towards deep domain expertise. Both are handy to have around. Both need your love and respect. Both could use a bit more balance in their lives. I'm not particularly sensitive to either one. I'll answer to both. But say it in a nice way, or I'll hack into your mobile phone and post your drunken New Years Eve party pictures to your Facebook account.

(image courtesy of


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