When I was a wee human, I was introduced to the terms “nerd” and “geek.” As a bookish child who was prone to crying and wore glasses that took up the vast majority of the real estate of my face, I was introduced to these terms via insult. “You are such a nerd!” and “Look at that geek reading the encyclopedia cover to cover! What a geeky thing for a geek to do!” (I really did read the encyclopedia cover to cover when I was in the sixth grade.)
I learned very quickly that “geek” and “nerd” meant the same thing in this context—someone who was socially awkward and also smart. And I learned that these terms were meant to be derogatory. Smart and awkward were apparently not good things to be.
Now, twentyish years later, some funny things have happened. Nerd- and geek-pride has become more prevalent in our technology-driven culture where superhero movies dominate the box office landscape. The terms “nerd” and “geek” have become badges of honor to many people (myself included). And more interestingly, the definitions of nerd and geek have evolved to mean separate things.
For over sixty years, we have been living with the words “nerd” and “geek.” The word nerd has somewhat murky origins, but it became popular in the 1950s as an insult for people who were book-smart, but lacking in social skills. The term geek has been kicking around for a much longer period of time and originally referred to carnival freaks—bearded ladies, merpeople, etc. Around the time that nerd was becoming the insult du jour for the pocket-protector set, the meaning of geek was morphing so that it meant, well, basically the same thing. A geek was a nerd, and a nerd was a geek and if you were a either, you were definitely a loser.
In the last few years I have gotten into more than a few late night discussions about what the terms “nerd” and “geek” mean in the modern world. The definitions of each seem to have as many variations as there are nerds and geeks: a nerd is someone who likes science fiction while a geek is someone who likes fantasy; nerds like math and science and geeks like the humanities; a geek is an Apple and a nerd is a PC; geeks like Marvel and nerds like DC; etc. This makes sense to me, in a way. Each nerd/geek, in the process of reclaiming and repurposing words meant to harm them, forms his or her own definition for personal identity.
However, there does appear to be a consensus emerging that bothers me just a little. The thing that irks me most is this consensus is not emerging from outside the nerd/geek community rather than from within. The consensus is this: The stereotype of the nerd is still the same. A nerd is a pocket-protector wearing, algebra loving, socially awkward person whom you might not want to be friends with, because, ew. A geek, however, is someone who likes Doctor Who, Harry Potter, and The Avengers, who knows their way around social media and carries an iPad wherever they go. A geek may like geeky things, but they’re kind of cool, you know? A nerd is still a nerd, but a geek is chic.
And it’s great that it is now socially acceptable, or even desirable to like Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Batman. If you go to the Gap or log on to Threadless, you can buy t-shirts with the X-Men on them. They sell TARDIS cookie jars at Urban Outfitters. Avatar is the highest grossing film of all time. I hold out hope that when I have children, they will not be ostracized for loving Star Trek as they make their way through school.
However, it is just as important—if not more important—that as a society we learn to embrace and celebrate intellect the way we have learned to celebrate passion for pop culture. There is a long history of anti-intellectualism in the United States, and anti-nerd stereotyping is a manifestation of that. Being good at math is still not “cool” to most people, and any teenagers would rather excel at sports than science. We celebrate athletes and pop singers while leaving librarians and engineers to toil in anonymity. When you ask someone what they think of a geek, they might have something nice to say, but when you ask them what they think of a nerd, they will probably give you a description that includes the same old stereotypes. Somehow, many people STILL believe that there is something wrong with being smart. Smart people are not attractive. Smart people have bad hygiene. Smart people do not have boyfriends or girlfriends. These are the negative stereotypes that will not die, even though they need to. When we separate pop culture geeks from book smart nerds, this is what happens. Embracing geeky/nerdy pop culture has been a positive step—now we need to take the next one and embrace intellect as well. Society needs intelligence. Engineers build roads and design state-of-the-art aircraft. Computer programmers build the web sites and apps that make our lives more convenient. Teachers educate and enlighten us.
As nerds/geeks, and especially as nerds/geeks who grew up in the pre-internet age, we know how it feels to be made fun of or beaten up because we are different. Whether you choose to call yourself a nerd, a geek, or a member of the Night’s Watch, remember that these terms unite us—we are all beings defined by our passions. When we are out and about in the world, it is important that we do our best to fight the old stereotypes wherever they rear their ugly heads. If you hear someone tell you in one breath that they are geeking out about Iron Man 3 and then in the next mock a friend who spent Friday night at home doing math homework, let them know that their logic is faulty. Celebrate the accomplishments of musicians, and artists, but celebrate great math teachers and electrical engineers too.
As the words “geek” and “nerd” continue to evolve, they may end up meaning very different things. My hope is that whatever their next permutations may be, when the average person hears them spoken on the street, they think “Oh, that girl’s a nerd?” or “that guy’s a geek? S/he must be awesome.”