Someone Please Resolve the “Geek”/”Nerd” Semantic Rivalry Before We Start Stabbing Each Other Over It

Chris Hardwick, The Nerdist Way

This book came close to changing my mind. So, so close.

The following entry is unapologetically subjective, will be unhelpful to most readers, and represents no definitive settlement of the matter for anyone except possibly myself, and I may even be wrong about that. Though I’m codifying my stance for the sake of never having to revisit this topic again if I can help it, I nonetheless reserve the privilege to change my mind without notice as time gallops forward, life experiences continue accumulating, and the aging process turns me either mellower or more crotchety than ever. I haven’t decided which road to take yet.

(Yes, that’s me front-loading the piece with an unwieldy headline and a nearly irrelevant disclaimer. If I were a film director, I clearly wouldn’t be the breed that insists Act 1, Scene 1 must be all about exploding cars. Between those and this bonus meta-parenthetical, I hereby declare the tone Properly Set.)

I’ve lost count of the number of opinion articles I’ve read in recent years offering a theory on the difference(s) between the terms “geek” and “nerd”. The subject popped up in one of my early MCC brainstorming sessions, but never forcefully enough to reach the top of the list. After circling the topic many times in my head without writing much else down, I eventually consigned it to To-Do-List Limbo, secured there even more tightly after one awkward evening when a discussion with my son on the subject escalated far worse than either of us expected. (His opinion, in sum: such labels are an obsolete throwback to an archaic Breakfast Club cliqueism that has no place in today’s cosmopolitan world. He just doesn’t get it. And yes, he really did cite The Breakfast Club. I blame his psychology teacher for working it into their curriculum.)

I’d left it alone for a while until a recent Freshly Pressed entry on another WordPress site scratched the scab and reinvigorated that long-dormant itching sensation. Not only were the author’s distinctions between the two labels more three-dimensional than average, his approach took one Olympic broad-jump further: he proved it with graphs.

His objective, mathematical approach lends no undue weight to any factors anecdotal, internalized, overgeneralized, fallacious, or crackpot-conspiracy-driven and instead measures pure linguistic results from a sampling pool of considerable size. Other similarly inclined respondents poked a few holes here and there in the methodology, but I’ve no dog in that fight considering my last calculus and statistics classes were in a previous decade. Though I believe some of the philosophical differences in the debate could be regional, generational, or situational in nature, rarely do the soliloquys avoid all those potential pitfalls in favor of simply crunching numbers and tallying results. I was so lost in thought while staring at those wondrous coordinates and pondering the ramifications two days ago, I forgot to tap the “Like” button till a few minutes ago.

Intended as neither a rebuttal nor a poorly disguised reblog, my reductive and exoterically useless thoughts are as follows:

1. What “Geek” Has Meant to Me:

Anyone who finds intrinsic meaning in following and studying a particular hobby, interest, medium, or other subject to a level that ordinary people find off-putting and disinclined to match or even to understand. For working purposes here, “ordinary” shall be left as a vague concept in the general vicinity of “I know it when I see it”, thus rendering my working definition of “geek” imprecise and ultimately unhelpful. (Told you so.)

From my own day-to-day standpoint, it’s as simple as this: if I talk about a given subject at either church, work, or family gatherings and receive nothing but blank stares or furrowed brows in return, those are the ordinary people. In those settings, I know that my version of “small talk” would wander too far past the geek boundary and I keep my mouth shut, except about the weather or whatever subjects they bring up first.

(I just finished writing a 600-word digression on that “small talk” part that ended somewhere beside the point. That’s now been carved out for serving separately another time, then.)

2. What “Nerd” Has Meant to Me:

Anyone who’s great at school subjects, and who therefore deserves to be singled out, picked on, or looked askance at from a safe, unsociable distance. This was my experience in my first several years of school. It was a different era, one in which “geek” wasn’t yet in fashion, and of course any “A” students like me had to be called something to set us apart in social isolation, whether we wanted to be or not.

Some people were quote-unquote “kidding”. Some weren’t. Some weren’t people I called “friends”. Some were kind of supposed to be. Over time it no longer mattered who was which. With each successive use I winced and grew a little sadder inside. When I caught Revenge of the Nerds on late-night cable in junior high, somehow I didn’t feel exonerated. The term fell into disuse only when I reached high school and found myself overshadowed by fifteen or twenty other, brighter, more well-adjusted “A” students with better clothing and financial standings. It’s easier to dodge the name-calling once you suddenly fall off everyone’s radar.

Today, calling me a nerd doesn’t turn me into a tearful pity party, but somewhere deep down, I can feel myself still bristling a little. It helps that I’m older and have successfully forgotten 70% of what I learned in school, so fewer people have occasion to use it against me nowadays.

Last year when I read and mostly enjoyed Chris Hardwick’s part-autobiography, part self-help tome The Nerdist Way, I was intrigued by his modified “nerdist” tag. By turning it into an -ism, it sounded more like a movement than an affliction. The feeling didn’t take long to wear off.

I know millions of others have no problem with “nerd”. I’m not interested in “taking it back”. This is purely my own hangup, which precludes me from the more stimulating discussions of geek-coast/nerd-coast rap rivalry. This is why I generally avoid using it unless a specific context demands it. Your Mileage May Vary. If your circles of friends successfully destigmatized it for your interpersonal use, then hey, cool. Congrats for that, in all sincerity. It hasn’t worked for me yet.

To a certain extent, my son probably has a point.


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