Saturday, April 19, 2008

Nerd or Geek; what’s the distinction?

This was the question posed at a celebratory dinner the other evening. I was curious because, at least in my experience eons ago, these terms had not only been used derogatorily, but also somewhat interchangeably. How many people feel the need to parse an insult? Get mad, get even perhaps, but not stop to quibble about which slur fits. But the times, thank the goddess and pass the gigabytes, have changed and, in this regard, for the better. Still, it leaves me with the question: is there a definable difference between geek and nerd, and if so, what?

So this is what I’ve come up with.

Geek — someone who is highly, even overly, enthusiastic about a particular field of endeavor or interest. More than hobbyists, geeks are several ranks up from buffs. Usually, equipment or materials are involved, as in: camera geek, yarn geek, car geek, silent movie geek. Has to be non-sentient, too: someone who’s avid about people they don’t personally know would be either a fan, groupie or stalker. So, one can be a rock geek, a star geek, but not a rock-star geek.

Geeks collect their totem items, and can be distracted beyond measure by its presence. Witness a book geek in a bookstore. Might as well bring in take-out Chinese if you thought you were sharing a lunch date.

Geeks love to hang out with other geeks of their persuasion, witness camera clubs, yarn-off evenings and Trekkie Conventions (Trekkies are geeks not fans because their focus is the whole show, not just the stars). A geek’s concentration, while it might seem somewhat whacked to their significant others, nevertheless can be genially tolerated and should even be indulged. If it’s an irritant, then look out, that relationship is OVER. While geeks will gladly talk shop whenever possible, they are also willing and able to converse on other topics and they will participate in other activities, such as work that might not be their enthusiasm, raising the kids, attending family functions. In the best of all possible worlds, some one, a nephew, niece, grandparent, in-law, uncle or aunt, is also smitten by the same bug, and the long afternoon barbeques pass in a lovely haze of shared enthusiasms.

Nerd — this is someone who is in over their head, immersed in their interest to the point of letting go of the tow rope. They are generally the reigning expert and are only too happy to establish that. They don’t seem to understand “a passing interest” in their subject. When talking with a non-nerd, the conversation can be quite one-sided; when talking with another nerd, the volume tends to escalate, as they strive to out-nerd each other. Nerds can be quite bored with activities or people not related to their interest. This makes it difficult for non-nerds to appreciate their genuine intelligence and wealth of knowledge. I would think that nerds are best matched up with another nerd of the same or similar persuasion.

Although those who know me might disagree, I self-identify as a word-geek. I love words and how they operate; I love them forwards, backward, sideways, jumbled-up, scrabbled. New words thrill me; making them up is even better. Anagrams, puns, poems; bring them on. A word geek like myself either has the OED or lusts after one. But a word nerd no longer needs one; they have it memorized and can recite definition and antecedent, first print appearances, annotations, footnotes, and variance of usage across time. We need the word-nerds of the world to keep the dictionaries well-oiled and running. Then we word-geeks can have the fun of pushing them to their limits.