Joe, a computer nerd, was talking with his psychotherapist. "You've got to help me," he says. "I've fallen in love with my computer, but I know I can never marry her."
"Well, it's good you haven't totally lost touch with reality," says the therapist.
"Oh, it could never work," says Joe. "She wants a career."
It's easy to make fun of nerds. It can be harder to recognize if you are one. And judging by the way the terms are used, it can be really hard to distinguish nerds from geeks.
Recently, in naming Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke Person of the Year for 2009, TIME magazine referred to him as a nerd. Is he really a nerd, or is he a geek? Delving into the nuances of these terms can be interesting and may even lead to some self-insight.
Oxford English Dictionary, perhaps the most distinguished arbiter of the English language, brings confusion rather than clarity to this crucial issue.
According to its first definition of the word, a nerd is a "foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious." That sounds about right. But Oxford's first definition of geek is synonymous: "an unfashionable or socially inept person."
Oxford's second definitions of both words are also synonymous: nerd as "an intelligent, single-minded expert in a particular technical discipline or profession" and geek as "a person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest."
Wikipedia is closer but still not quite right. It describes a nerd as "a person who passionately pursues intellectual activities, esoteric knowledge, or other obscure interests that are age-inappropriate rather than engaging in more social or popular activities." A geek, according to Wikipedia, is "a peculiar or otherwise odd person, especially one who is perceived to be overly obsessed with one or more things including those of intellectuality, electronics, etc."
The New Hacker's Dictionary and its online version, The Jargon File (www.catb.org/~esr/jargon), gets it almost exactly right, I believe. A nerd is a "pejorative applied to anyone with an above-average IQ and few gifts at small talk and ordinary social rituals," while a geek is "a person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance."
The best distinction I've heard is that the word nerd connotes social awkwardness, while geek conveys specialized expertise and devotion. The former is negative, the latter positive. In a 2007 interview on The Colbert Report, author Richard Clarke said the difference between nerds and geeks is "geeks get it done."
But it seems you can be both a nerd and a geek, one or the other, or neither. The words "dweeb" and "wonk" are similar, with dweeb sounding more to me like nerd and wonk more like geek.
The words nerd and geek have equally interesting etymologies. The word nerd was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo to refer to a small humanoid creature. Geek has an older, and weirder, origin. It was first used to refer to carnival performers whose act involved biting the heads off a live chicken, bat, or snake. Specialized expertise indeed.
Language evolves, and so have these two words. According to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, nerd was being used as slang meaning "drip" or "square" later in the 1950s, perhaps by older siblings of the 5- and 6-year-olds who had read Dr. Seuss.
The word nerd received major boosts in popularity when it was used frequently in the 1970s in the sitcom Happy Days and by the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds. By this time, in the minds of some anyway, nerd had come to mean not just socially awkward but intelligent as well.
The word geek also took time to evolve to its present, albeit hazily defined, meaning. The 1976 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary included only the carnival definition. The 2004 documentary film Geeks dealt with people devoted to narrow, "geeky" subjects such as Star Trek.
Whether you use the words nerd and geek synonymously or differentiate, if you recognize aspects of either in yourself, you can choose to celebrate the positive, your "geek chic."
You can find lots of "Nerd Pride" tee shirts and buttons for sale on the web. If you can laugh at yourself, you can order a multicolored propeller beanie, plain or with a patch that says either "Computer whiz" or "I fly the Web" from the online retailer Bytes 'n Grins (www.geekgifts.us).
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.