WATCH: What Is The Difference Between "Geek" And "Nerd"?
These names used to be roughly interchangeable when distinguishing the social outcasts from the in-crowd in school. Yet, those so-called social rejects were destined to rule the world in the form of Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, et al. “The geek shall inherit the earth,” indeed. Oh yeah, and billions of dollars.
There’s a lot of overlap in the meanings of nerd, geek, and dork. Yet, some of these terms have grown up a little more than others, and even wriggled away from their initial negative connotations.
Today, being a geek or a nerd no longer implies that you’ll receive a horrible wedgie and get thrown in a locker. Based on popular usage of these terms, geeks and nerds are a new brand of cool kid.
We wanted to explore what sets these terms apart and, as the Word Nerds that we are, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to highlight their truly bizarre biographies. Bonus: they generally have absolutely nothing to do with book-smarts and glasses. Biting heads off chickens. Dr. Seuss. Dwarfs. Penises. It’s all in there.
What are the differences?
First and foremost: Remember, as with all words (including conventional slurs like b*tch), these terms can be used in jest or in anger, to praise or disparage. Calling someone a nerd can be a compliment or a dis, depending on the person and context. So, be mindful!
Alright, what sets these terms apart? Let’s start with the definitions:
Dork: “a silly, out-of-touch person who tends to look odd or behave ridiculously around others”
Nerd: “socially awkward” and “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit”
Geek: “a digital-technology expert or enthusiast” and “a person who has excessive enthusiasm for and some expertise about a specialized subject or activity”
There’s one more term we can add to this geeky list: dweeb. Dweeb is “wimp; a stupid or uninteresting person.”
It seems as though intelligence and social skills play a big part in a lot of these definitions, but why?
Where did these words come from?
So, what was that about penises and Dr. Seuss? Oh yeah, the bizarre origin stories we were talking about.
This word is the youngest of the four, found in the 1960s. Dweeb’s associations with unintelligence stem from the possibility that the word is a fusion of dwarf and feeb (short for “feeble-minded person”).
This isn’t to say that dwarves are unintelligent! What may be an explanation for dweeb’s existence is that ‘60s college kids riffed on the physically short stature of dwarves and the short brain span of “feeble-mindedness” and came up with dweeb to describe a dimwit.
In an odd 2012 book called The Lizzard of Ozz, an author named Dr. Rufus T. Dingleberry confirms dweeb’s “dimwitted” character, which he claims is a result of the dweeb’s parents’ obsession with certain mind-altering substances.
So, back in the 1960s, dork meant “penis.” (Must’ve been something in the air in the ’60s …) One of the earliest instances comes from the 1961 novel Valhalla by Jere Peacock, where dork had a fancy-seeming spelling: “You satisfy many women with that dorque?”
This spelling of dorque suggests a connection to Dorque, a 1940s slang nickname for a solider. Other origin theories of dork are that it’s an alteration of d*ck, which would make sense for dork’s initial, phallic meaning. Dork also may be related to dirk, a slang term for “penis” dating all the way back to the late 1700s.
Dork went on to mean people who do silly, ridiculous things. It’s pretty common in slang to liken a foolish person to a taboo body part. Butthead, anyone?
Nerd’s origins are really hazy. (Could the 1960s have anything to do with that?) The most frequently cited story is that Dr. Seuss coined the word, as the name of a bizarre-looking creature, in his 1950 children’s book If I Ran the Zoo. Suess also introduced nerd’s friends, “preep,” “proo,” and “nerkle” in the same book.
A year later, Newsweek reported on nerd’s popularity with slang-slinging youth of the day: “… someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd.”
The problem with the Seuss origin theory is that it’s very unlikely teens (who probably weren’t reading Seuss) picked up the word and used it so much that it became a national story—in only a year. And, why use nerd and not “nerkle”? Nerd had to have been around before Seuss, but the doc certainly made it more popular.
Etymologists think nerd has a combination of influences, in addition to Dr. Seuss (and possibly informing his own use). These include a long-running joke of spelling drunk backwards (“knurd”), implying that studious people don’t drink or party; a 1930s slang term for nuts (“nerts”); and a ventriloquist dummy popular in the ‘40s named Mortimer Snerd.
In the ‘50s, nerds were “square,” but the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds started to hint that it was “hip to be square.” Computer culture also helped nerd take flight, but the word wasn’t explicitly associated with technology. Technological prowess was never a requirement to be a nerd; only that the nerd be extremely intelligent in any academic area to which they paid attention while ignoring the trivial social scene.
Despite being less cool, nerd has definitely achieved a trendier and more complimentary status than dork and dweeb. It’s rare to find a proud “computer dork” or a “word dweeb,” but self-touting “computer nerds,” “book nerds,” and “word nerds,” are everywhere (as they should be!) From the outset, then, nerd seems to operate like geek in that you can preface nerd with just about any subject in which you claim to have some sincere interest and expertise.
A caveat, though. A quick search of a database on contemporary English shows that the people using nerd are often retaining more of its academic focus: “math nerd,” “language nerd, “meteorologist nerd,” “chemistry nerd,” “statistics nerd,” even “bibliophilic nerd.”
Geek on the other hand … geek often branches out into more social scenes: “movie geek,” “space geek,” “music geek,” “guitar geek,” “band geek,” “suburban lawn geek,” “fantasy football geek,” “gardening geek” … you get the picture. So, let’s get geeky!
Geek is found as early as the 1870s, originally mocking of “a foolish or worthless person.” It might be a variant of geck, a word for “fool, simpleton, or dupe” recorded in the 1500s. This geck, in turn, could come from a Germanic root meaning “to croak.” Geek. Geck. Croak. We can sort of hear it; can you?
In the early 1900s, a geek was a circus performer who horrified audiences with freaky things like biting off the heads of live animals, like chickens and snakes. William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley (1946), about the darker side of showbiz, may have helped popularized the term.
Considering the bizarre acts performed by circus geeks, it may be no surprise that the word geek eventually came to describe general “oddballs” and “eccentrics.” How geek became “smart” is debated, but by the 1950s and 1960s, a geek was a “unlikable brainiac.” Not for long!
With the computer and tech revolution, geek boomed in popularity with its friend nerd. Unlike nerd, though, the word geek rooted itself more squarely with technology-related fields (once it quit biting off animal heads). Thus, because technology is so important in the Digital Age, so are geeks!