What's the difference between a geek, a nerd and a dork?
May 15, 2008 3:33 PM   Subscribe

What's the difference between a geek, a nerd and a dork?

For various (what I consider positive) reasons I've been called all three recently and I just wondered if there were differences between the labels (however subtle) as I thought or if they were interchangable? If there are differences can they be catagorised in subcultural ways?
posted by feelinglistless to Society & Culture (43 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Geek is a term of admiration, nerd is a term of ambivalence, and dork is a term of derision.
posted by gyusan at 3:41 PM on May 15, 2008 [14 favorites]

I've always thought of it this way:

Geek - Very knowledgeable of a specific topic (electronics, comic books, etc)
Nerd - Very knowledgeable across a wide variety of subjects (book smart)
Dork - socially awkward and not mutually exclusive of nerd/geek
posted by toomuch at 3:42 PM on May 15, 2008 [12 favorites]

Gyusan nailed it.
posted by pedmands at 3:43 PM on May 15, 2008

Obviously there is no single definition, and meaning will depend on both the speaker and subject, but gyusan provides as good an approximation as you'll find.
posted by Nelsormensch at 3:46 PM on May 15, 2008

a geek is into one particular thing, usually math or science, but sometimes used in other contexts, such as "You're a music geek"

a nerd is a socially awkward geek.

a dork is often a really out there nerd or geek, who's marching to a totally different violin with almost zero awareness of social norms.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 3:46 PM on May 15, 2008

Wow - I just looked up "geek" in he OED and one of the defenitions is this:

2. U.S. slang. A performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts, such as biting the head off a live animal.

posted by gyusan at 3:47 PM on May 15, 2008

Response by poster: gyusan -- yes, I've been confused by that definition too! Larry Miles uses it to describe one of the odd-bod timelords in his Doctor Who novel, 'Interference'.
posted by feelinglistless at 3:52 PM on May 15, 2008

Also, Dork:

"2 definitions

The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48
dork \dork\ (d[^o]rk), n.

1. a person who is stupid, socially inept, or ridiculous; --
always used disparagingly. [slang.]

Syn: nerd; jerk. [PJC]

2. the penis. [vulgar slang]

posted by pedmands at 3:52 PM on May 15, 2008

Nerd and geek are interchangeable. Dork is a close synonym but is a bit more general--it doesn't connote intelligence, but does connote social ineptness as do nerd and geek.
posted by aerotive at 3:58 PM on May 15, 2008

That dictionary definition iscwhat was referred to by the title of the popular book Geek Love.
posted by iamkimiam at 4:03 PM on May 15, 2008

All of the above, and yet, I'd refer to someone I love as a dork when they are being awkward but endearing.
posted by Sophie1 at 4:04 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Geek is subject-specific; nerd is booksmart; dork is derogatory. Also, what pedmands said, in PG-13(?) movies, or editing for tv, they have sometimes used "dork" instead of "dick" (there's one movie in particular from the 80's, but I can't remember what it is, but a dude's in a boxing ring and maybe lettuce is involved and then someone pulls down his shorts and everyone sees his dork).
posted by unknowncommand at 4:15 PM on May 15, 2008

Geeks place their insular interests before social sensibilities.

Nerds are geeks who have felt the pangs of rejection.

Dorks just don't get it.
posted by wfrgms at 4:16 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with toomuch, especially in the distinction between geek and nerd.

Cat and Girl make the further point that nerds often make use of their knowledge in a practical way, while geeks seem to be more interested in amassing very specific knowledge without any output.

Dorks are just awkward souls. They occur in higher frequencies where nerds and geeks are found, but I have known some immensely thick-headed, intellectually unadventurous dorks.
posted by dorothy humbird at 4:28 PM on May 15, 2008 [2 favorites]

Toomuch's definition was exactly what I was going to say. I'm a nerd. If someone called me a geek it would give me pause, because I'm not particularly adept in any one area. If someone called me a dork they'd just be wrong (or so I hope).
posted by Nattie at 4:38 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

I like gyusan's definition. Very succinct.

I will add that a geek has become a cool term. Most guys in tech are geeks. Funny, slightly awkward, or left of center, but still socially acceptable. Not very good with girls. Geeks are the guys you don't mind dating, and maybe marrying. They are immortalized in JoCo's Code Monkey.

A nerd is less tech, and more academic. I think pocket protectors and possibly slide rulers. Stereotypically: Electrical engineers, math profs. There is no charisma, so they fall flat.

A dork is just someone from one of the first two categories who doesn't have a clue and doesn't want one. I also think of a dork as being more mean-spirited.
But a dork also can be a term of endearment when someone is being a complete goofball.
posted by casadecruz at 4:43 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me, a geek is a nerd with social skills; both possess an intricate knowledge of some specialized subject that is often mystifying to the "lay"person. Being a dork implies no knowledge; if I use it derogatorily it is generally somebody who is stupid while being a bit obnoxious or immature about it.
posted by synecdoche at 4:44 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

For me, as a child of the late 70's/early 80's, the term nerd conjours up a very specific image, which I guess comes from the titular characters of movies like Revenge of the Nerds... To me, a nerd is somebody with thick glasses, a button-down white shirt and the infamous pocket-protector in their shirt pocket holding a multitude of pens etc. I guess the generic summary of nerd based on this definition is somebody who is heavily into a subject like math or science and is totally unaware of societal norms like dress sense or social graces.

In comparison, a geek for me suggests somebody who is obsessive about something, but doesn't conjour up the same mental imagery. By default, I think most people that use the term geek on it's own mean someone obsessed with technology or science, but it can also be used with a qualifier to describe someone obsessed with something else ie. model railroad geek or band geek (think Alyson Hannigan in American Pie! Definitely a band geek but NOT a nerd.). As everyone else said, this generally makes geek a more friendly term because it doesn't stereotype as much as nerd does (at least for me).

Finally, dork is used in my circles to describe actions more than behaviour. If somebody does something that is socially incorrect or a little strange, then you might tell them they are a dork. Over time, I guess you could come to refer to somebody as a dork permanently if they continue to do strange things, but here in Australia it's not necessarily considered a nasty term, just a suggestion that somebody doesn't fit with society that well.

So, there you go! In my opinion, a geek is somebody who is obsessed (usually with technology, unless it is qualified), a dork is somebody who is socially awkward, and a nerd is a dorky geek! :)
posted by ranglin at 4:46 PM on May 15, 2008

Apparently "dork = whale penis" is an urban legend. Now I feel stupid for believing it all these years...
posted by proj08 at 4:49 PM on May 15, 2008

I wholeheartedly agree with toomuch's definitions.

But where I come from dork is definitely not derogatory in any way. It's always been used almost affectionately, as another word for a silly person.
posted by Squee at 4:58 PM on May 15, 2008

don't forget dorkwad
posted by tom_g at 4:58 PM on May 15, 2008

Could this possibly shed some light?
posted by jockc at 5:15 PM on May 15, 2008

doh nevermind
posted by jockc at 5:16 PM on May 15, 2008

I think nerd is a much less derogatory word than it used to be. I agree with toomuch that nerd now just means book smart. Nerdy=interested in learning, possibly a little too much, but not necessarily socially deficient. I think the stereotypical 70s nerd was a 'dorky geek', as ranglin says, but not anymore.

Dork can by insulting or affectionate, I've found. It seems like you can 'act dorky' and that's kind of cute in an inept way-- like, "oh, I have such a crush on Johnny, I'm such a dork around him!" But if you just call someone a dork, that's bad-- it means they're a socially stunted moron who may or may not be smart.
posted by showbiz_liz at 5:30 PM on May 15, 2008

I've always thought of it as Geek = has great passion for one subject. Usually computers but could be music, motorcycles, aviation, late-period roman history, what have you. You can be a geek without being particularly intelligent or socially adept, but you can be both of those as well.

A nerd is intelligent in a lot of things. You don't necessarily need to be passionate or sociable.

A dork is socially clueless. Thus it is possible to be :

A geek, but not a nerd or dork
a nerd, but not a geek or dork
Both a geek and a nerd, but not a dork
A geek and a dork, but not a nerd
A nerd and a dork, but not a geek
A Nerd, a Geek, and a Dork.
posted by spatula at 5:31 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

Venn Diagram, courtesy of OriginalSyn on Reddit.
posted by Sitegeist at 5:37 PM on May 15, 2008 [3 favorites]

The Nerd? Geek? or Dork? Test.
posted by ottereroticist at 7:34 PM

Have a throwaway email ready if you want your results.
posted by NoraCharles at 5:38 PM on May 15, 2008

Not everyone can be a nerd or a geek. But we are all, at one time or another, dorks.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 5:43 PM on May 15, 2008

A nerd is ... possibly slide rulers

And yet, back in the days of slide rules, we didn't have these words... dork, sure, but that pretty much only meant penis. The closest was maybe twerp. Or perhaps nebbish... in Slate, ten years ago, Nerd vs. Nebbish: Who's the bigger loser? And ten years before that I remember, in response to Bush I's comment, "Saying No doesn't make you a nerd"; Harry Shearer took some calls on le Show about what does make you a nerd? and the best response was "somebody who likes anything too much, unless it's sports".
posted by Rash at 6:01 PM on May 15, 2008

They are all terms of derision.

Some people are trying to own or "take back" the words and redefine them according to their own rules, but that doesn't really change that. I believe the episode of curb your enthusiasm called "krazy eyez killah" explored the futility of such attempts.
posted by gjc at 6:21 PM on May 15, 2008

I know common usage has changed, but when I was a kid (70s/80s in Indiana), geek and nerd were synonyms and they were completely negative. They were insults. No one I knew proudly called himself a geek.

Both words meant "social pariahs who were seemingly smart." Basically, if you were male and at the bottom of the social totem pole, you were a geek unless you were dumb. (Where I grew up, there wasn't a special word for dump pariahs -- other than loser or "fag.") Girls were never geeks or nerds.

Amongst my peers, dork would more likely be applied to a jock than a nerdy kid. The captain of the football team wasn't a dork, but his big lumbering sidekick was. Dork was also a generic insult, similar to asshole.

I'm definitely a geek in the more contemporary sense: I'm a programmer and I have all sorts of obsessions. But I can't hear myself called that or apply it to myself without feeling the negative meaning. I grew up with it. I doubt it will ever leave me.

The TV show "Freaks and Geeks" was set in a small midwestern town, much like the one I grew up in exactly the same period. The freshmen in the show are just starting high school and it's 1980. I was a freshman in 1980. The word geek is used as an insult in the show. It's never a positive (or purely descriptive) label.
posted by grumblebee at 6:54 PM on May 15, 2008

In about 2000, I worked at Sotheby's as a technical trainer. My co-worker, another trainer, sent out a newsletter to the staff. She started one article by writing, "Hey geeks-in-training, we have some great classes coming up..."

She got in big trouble. Some high-level person got extremely offended at being called a geek. The person who took offense was in her 50s. I remember discussing the situation with my colleagues. There was no general agreement as to whether or not geek was an insult.
posted by grumblebee at 6:59 PM on May 15, 2008

Geeks eat the heads of chickens.
posted by chunking express at 7:29 PM on May 15, 2008

Stressing that dork can be an affectionate term. It's kind of like calling someone a goofball jokingly when they say something silly.
posted by theiconoclast31 at 7:34 PM on May 15, 2008

Nerds know that Geek is a circus performer who does some strange sh*t like driving a nail into his head. We adopted the term for anybody who does one thing good. Geeks fight about Kirk vs Picard, Nerds fight about almost anything, Dorks just don't have a clue or don't care.

So I'm political dork, science/math/computer nerd, and networking/anime geek. Same as above, dork is doofus and sometimes sweet for somebody who tries but just doesn't get it, nerd is everything, geek is focused in some area.
posted by zengargoyle at 7:58 PM on May 15, 2008

The breakdown between the three types according to a favorite webcomic artist of mine... not sure I totally agree, but the illustrations are cute :)
posted by rivenwanderer at 8:15 PM on May 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

A geek bites off chicken heads.
posted by turgid dahlia at 8:29 PM on May 15, 2008

There was no general agreement as to whether or not geek was an insult.

I will use these terms to self-describe, or describe close friends; used by outsiders it is an insult. I once took umbrage with a helpdesk caller who called me a "nerd"... luckily the caller became sheepish when challenged and nobody heard me put him in his place.

I am soooo lucky that didn't get me in trouble.... but these are "our" words.
posted by Deep Dish at 8:44 PM on May 15, 2008

I concur with what spatula said.

SamuelF = geek + nerd - dork
posted by SamuelF at 9:03 PM on May 15, 2008

I've often wondered about that. I did a bit of googling this past September and this is what I found: "I've always had the vague idea that "geek" referred to the social group (Star Wars & Trek, role playing games, comic books etc.) while "nerd" just referred to having an obsessive, social-life-inhibiting interest in something. So you could have "horse nerds" but not "horse geeks," unless there's a sub-class of people who like to put Darth Vader helmets on their horses. Googling for the two terms, there are more usages of "horse nerd" (486) than "horse geek" (357) but not overwhelmingly so."

Dork, for me, just refers to someone who lacks in social skills and savoir faire. "Cool dork" would be an oxymoron.
posted by Kattullus at 7:31 AM on May 16, 2008

Afroblanco was a bit miffed when I told him we were ALL nerds here on mefi ;-)...."No. I am a geek."
posted by brujita at 12:20 AM on May 17, 2008

Belatedly, here is how WikiHow users describe the difference as of right now. Grammar and syntax have not, obviously, been altered:

A geek is defined as someone having knowledge of a particular topic beyond the level of knowledge needed for ordinary usage of that topic. That means, like if one memorized every knowable fact on birds of the South Pacific, or something, you would be a geek. A nerd on the other hand, is a person that would actually look odd and have extensive knowledge on math or science. Becoming a geek can be very profitable and personally fulfilling.

posted by homelystar at 10:41 AM on October 2, 2008

« Older Why'd my reliable mac crash so violently?   |   Best route to get from the PCH / Santa Monica to... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.