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Nerds and Geeks Celebrated, Not Denigrated

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Link-Up Digital

A new survey shows how devoted we are to our gadgets. Nearly three out of four Americans—74%—say they would rather have their house broken into than their smartphone hacked, according to a survey by MiMedia, a personal cloud company.

Other findings of the nationwide survey of 1,120 cell phone users are equally revealing. More than half of all people—56%—admit to using their phones while driving a car, a dangerous form of distracted driving that leads to as many car crashes each year as drunken driving.

We can’t keep away from our phones in other settings as well. About one in five people say they use their phones on dates (21%) or at church, temple, or other place of worship (18%). Fortunately, we’re more respectful at funerals. Only 8% of us admit to using our phones here.

Being a gadget geek isn’t new. Many of us have been “addicted” to our personal computers, whether laptops or desktops, since we were first introduced to them. Then there are the plethora of other distractions, including tablets, ereaders, game consoles, media players, digital cameras, and more.

PCs and Macs deserve special recognition, since they launched the personal digital revolution in the 1970s and 1980s. It’s easy to see why personal computers are so enticing. Through their versatility, power, and customizability, in the minds of many, PCs transcend mere machinehood.

Personal computers allow you to communicate with far more people than a phone or letter. They help you write far more efficiently than a typewriter or pen and paper. They make it possible to keep track of people and things far more easily than a roster or list. They let you budget, forecast, and plan far more effectively than a calculator or table. And they make education far more compelling than words and pictures on paper.

Now with portable digital devices you can take much of this power with you wherever you go.

Hardcore devotees of digital technology are sometimes called “geeks,” sometimes “dweebs,” sometimes “wonks.” But probably the most common term is “nerd,” at least the most disparaging.

The stereotypical image of a nerd is a stiff, humorless, socially inept male with thick eyeglasses and buck teeth and carrying a big assortment of pens and pencils in his plastic-protected shirt pocket. A geek is typically seen as more like a wonk, an expert in a particular field who may or may not be able to engage in small talk smoothly at a cocktail party. Nerds “get their nerd on” while geeks “geek out.”

The origins of both words are interesting. 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. Before this, “geck” in 19th century England meant fool, and today a related word in Dutch, “gek,” means mad or silly.

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 five- and six-year-olds who had read Dr. Seuss.

The word “nerd” received major boosts in popularity when it was used frequently in 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. By the 1980s geeks were regarded as people deeply involved with such interests as computers, science fiction, or comic books. The 2004 documentary film Geeks dealt with people devoted to narrow, “geeky” subjects such as Star Trek. Today, Best Buy’s Geek Squad will try to cure whatever ails your digital device.

However you use the words “nerd” and “geek,” if you recognize aspects of either in yourself, you can choose to celebrate your “nerd pride” and to participate in “geek culture.”

In its Nerd Art department, Fine Art America has posters depicting neural networks and “nerd dogs.” ThinkGeek has t-shirts illustrated with binary numbers and dresses emblazoned with HTML and Javascript. 

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at or

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