Common Language: Nerd/Geek/Dork

This series will focus on terminology that people throw around, often without clear explanations of what they mean, resulting in a great deal of confusion and pedantic argument. My goal will be to attempt to provide some level of clarity to these words, at least as I use them. Attempting to forge an actual consensus on the internet is probably impossible, but at least I will be understood when using these terms.

During one of our podcasts, Dave and I discussed Patton Oswalt’s article, “Wake Up, Geek Culture. Time to Die,” in which the comedian discusses his opinions on the idea of geek culture, what it has become, where it’s going, and what can or should be done. Obviously, we had varying ideas on whether we agreed or not, though my conclusion was simply that originality of thought and work staves off any problems inherent in the growing prominence of said culture. That said, we throw around words like geek and nerd and dork pretty readily, as if their meaning is apparent. After all, the name of this site uses the term geek freely, and expects our esteemed readers to understand what it means.

But what does it mean? Is it obvious? I hear people talk all the time about what geeks they are, from all social strata, and that’s odd to me. I grew up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, before and during the foundation of the internet, and these terms were shameful. To some degree they still can be, but on the whole, the time when people were embarrassed about their uncool interests is over. People don’t merely embrace them, they advertise. However, enough people have different ideas about these words and their meanings and use them differently enough that the meanings are not readily clear, though most people would say they know nerd/geek/dork culture when they see it, and it’s easy enough to visit the section of Barnes and Noble filled with graphic novels, sci-fi/fantasy, and roleplaying game books, because those sorts of fans just go together, don’t they?

For one thing, nerd, geek, and dork have to some degree or other taken on somewhat distinct meanings in some circles. While hardly agreed upon by all, the most commonly agreed upon uses are that a nerd is someone who excels at and is interested in academics or schoolwork, geek represents individuals who are particularly interested in some aspects of popular culture, while a dork is someone who lacks social skills. Obviously, there’s plenty of room for overlap in these, and many people still use them interchangeably.

Even with these baselines in place, and they do serve a purpose, is there really a place for calling people any of these terms? Without a centralized meaning, words are just about useless, especially words that can be used to either insult or represent a subculture, if such a culture exists in a concrete way. Is a nerd someone who gets straight A’s, or do they have to spend all their free time studying too? Is a geek someone who programs computers, or can people geek out over anything, from comic books to sport statistics to crochet? Is a dork someone who is merely shy and has unpopular fashion sense, or do they have to make Napoleon Dynamite look charming to qualify? Have these terms become like punk, where there’s an endlessly moving goalpost to qualify, or have the floodgates been opened so wide that any dilettante can be let in? Even if they can, do we have reason to stop them?

I suppose the problem comes from the fact that these terms were originally bestowed as derogatory unto people who simply didn’t fit in with the mainstream culture, usually in school. Children are experts at picking out those who are different, whether because they are smarter, shyer, or weaker than average, and isolating them. The kids who are so isolated must of course develop defense mechanisms to deal with this, often throwing themselves into areas where they are comfortable, such as their schoolwork, hobbies, and interests. Usually these were based on obscure skills or knowledge that do not lend to popularity in the way interests like sports or fashion do. As such kids banded together, these interests often spread amongst them, and became associated with the individuals primarily labeled as nerds, geeks, and dorks. Essentially, the chicken and egg switched places.

Eventually, the internet came along, and all of a sudden, Bill Gates, a “nerd,” is the richest man in the world. Given that many of these outcast individuals understood the technology faster than anyone else, and the fact that they could now communicate outside their own small circles, or in fact leave behind isolation, the individuals labeled nerd/geek/dork for all their varied reasons reclaimed the words and became a culture, and while still met with some stigma, that culture developed a voice that the mainstream could no longer ignore or marginalize. Because the culture had become so vast, and had such varied origins, it began to fragment, as these things do. Soon, these three terms, which were once more or less interchangeable, began to describe different facets of the culture, though again, since the terms were not built to describe what they came to describe, they remain incredibly imprecise.

So for all that, what are the definitions as I use them? Do I cop out and say they’re all the same, or all worthless, or do I just go with what’s accepted? Self-identification is important, and I will do my best not to label anyone a nerd, geek, or dork who doesn’t ask to be addressed as such. The terms can still be used pejoratively, and are even within the culture, since as much as we are loath to admit it, nerds/geeks/dorks have our own social hierarchy. Obviously I am okay being referred to as a geek, since I run this blog and associate myself with its content, but I hope to be more than simply that label. I’m Jesse first, geek somewhere down the line. Honestly, I’d be okay with using the terms as a degree of interest or aptitude (or lack thereof) rather than a personal label. I am a geek for comic books, for example, but not a geek for wrestling. I am a nerd for English, but not a nerd for science. I am a dork when in a dance club, but not dorky at all when working as a tutor. I can’t say for sure that’s the best answer, but I think it may be the best one there is.

Shit, I should have started off with an easier topic. Thoughts?