Are 'geek' and 'nerd' now positive terms?

Clockwise, from left: Richard Ayoade (Image: Talkback), Matt Smith, the stars of the Harry Potter films, David Mitchell, members of Hot Chip and Alyson Hannigan

Campaigners in Sweden are trying to force a dictionary to change its definition of "nerd". But after two decades of "reappropriation" has "nerd" - and its sister word "geek" - now completely lost its derogatory connotations?

In the 1984 film Revenge of the Nerds the rousing final speech of one of the protagonists starts with the statement: "I'm a nerd."

Its plot may be cartoonish but the film reveals a certain cultural backdrop - to be a nerd was to be socially awkward, even socially inferior. Jocks, those who were good at sport, or other socially successful groups, usually ended up winning. To turn that on its head could form the basis for comedy.

Things have changed.

Nerds: The origin of the species

A Nerd, from Dr Seuss's If I Ran the Zoo
  • Used to describe one of the creatures in the 1950 Dr Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo
  • First recorded reference in Newsweek, in 1951
  • Commonly used by late 1970s, coinciding with boom in computer use

The Social Network in 2010 came in a very different social milieu. Now a nerd, or a "geek", can be a driven Machiavellian bent on success - Gordon Gekko in a zip-up hoodie.

Today when people think of "geeks" and "nerds" they might very well name the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg - people whose imagination and grasp of the technical made them billions.

Historic geeks are celebrated, with Alan Turing and Nikola Tesla's legacies provoking great passions. New York Times blogger and geeky statistician Nate Silver has been hailed as an unexpected star of the US presidential election after correctly predicting the outcome. "Memo to wannabe presidents: hire geeks, not pundits," advises this week's New Scientist magazine.

Even sportsmen unabashedly refer to themselves as "nerds". Chris Kluwe of the Minnesota Vikings, who has just been voted "sexiest man of the year", said of the honour: "It's a little weird because I'm a nerd video game player."

Singles on dating websites define themselves in their profiles as "nerds" and "geeks" - in a positive way - and there is no end of blogs listing stars like Natalie Portman as geeks or listing "nerdy power couples" (like Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter).

A slew of comedies over the past few years have had geeks as heroes, such as Tim Bisley - the comics, video game and Star Wars-obsessive of Spaced - and Sheldon Cooper, the precocious physicist of The Big Bang Theory.

Mark Zuckerberg: Uber-nerd?

Mark Zuckerberg

The Facebook creator has come to embody the rise of the nerd.

His path from computer-obsessed teenager to one of the world's most influential people was charted by Jose Antonio Vargas in the New Yorker, who meets the "same awkward person" as his public persona would suggest.

The creation of Facebook may have inspired the 2010 Oscar-winning film The Social Network. But, as the Daily Telegraph's Melissa Whitworth suggested, Zuckerberg's personality didn't "come out of the process all that well".

Zuckerberg said the film accurately reflected his dress-sense but not his motives. However, Derek Thompson, of the Atlantic, says he nonetheless emerged as a "boy-king of new capitalism", despite being portrayed as ruthless and calculating.

Whatever people think, there is little doubt that what Zuckerberg says matters. Shares in Facebook bounced 8% on the back of his first public interview since their flotation, and Businessweek found the CEO targeting his next billion active users.

In Skyfall, Bond's gadget guru Q has evolved into a slick computer geek.

There's been a long period of "reappropriation" of the words "geek" and "nerd".

The very first depiction of a "nerd" is believed to have been a hairy, critter created by children's author-illustrator Dr Seuss.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary mentions the 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo in its etymology as the leading contender as source for the term.

"The first written reference was in 1951, which lends credence to the Dr Seuss theory," says associate editor Kory Stamper.

That year, this definition was published in Newsweek: "In Detroit, someone who once would be called a drip or a square is now, regrettably, a nerd."

According to Stamper, the word nerd was "pretty much under the radar" until the late 1970s when the computer boom prompted a rise.

The Revenge of the Nerd films cemented in people's minds the image of a socially awkward, brainy group that particularly dealt with technology.

"There was a dip in its usage for a while before becoming more popular as more people started learning html and building their own websites," says Stamper. "It came back in the mid-1990s, when it was still being used disparagingly. There was a slow shift and by the 2000s, it began to register a neutral sense."

The word "geek" is older, starting out in the early 1900s to refer to a carnival performer (see box) whose only skill was the ability to bite the heads off chickens.

It's easy to argue that "nerd" and "geek", with their very different roots, retain different meanings, arguably with the former still more derogatory than the latter. And some see a transatlantic divide, with "geek" used in US and UK, but "nerd" somehow feeling less British.

Stamper argues "nerd" now denotes a depth of knowledge in a particular area, while "geek" appears to have taken on the more technical overtones that "nerd" once had.

"We have evidence of people particularly taking the word 'geek' and using it proudly to reclaim the best elements," says Stamper.

This process of reappropriation is common. Take, for example, the way many gay people have altered the meaning of the word "queer".

Geeks

The OED suggests the term may have originated in the north of England.

In the US, "geek" was first used in the early 1900s to refer to a carnival performer. At roughly the same time, it became a general synonym of "fool".

By the 1950s, "geek" started referring to a person who was unsociable and freakishly devoted to something, usually intellectual. By the late 1950s, the "intellectual" connotation had solidified, and we gained the second sense below, "a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked."

In the 1980s, it was sometimes derisively applied to people who had deep knowledge of computers or related technology.

Source: Kory Stamper, Merriam-Webster, and OED

The classic current use of "geek" as a self-description is typically accompanied by something else - "stats geek", "physics geek", "history geek" and even "cocktail geek" all being standard usages.

Some lexicographers have been slow to reflect the new status of "nerd" and "geek".

In Sweden, an online petition to change the dictionary definition of "nerd" - a "simple-minded and laughable person" - has gathered almost 4,000 signatures.

According to reports, the Swedish Academy says it might change the definition to something more neutral in the future.

English writer Neil Gaiman - author of the Sandman comic book series, Stardust and Coraline novels - says he is fascinated by how "incredibly quickly" both words took off in the UK after the 1980s.

"I remember interviewing William Gibson - who posited a world in which people sitting in front of their computers were cool - for Time Out in the mid-to-late 1980s," says Gaiman. "Gibson described himself as the geek who couldn't play baseball. Someone at Time Out changed this to 'Greek' because they said they hadn't come across the word.

"Nerd became popular with the Revenge of the Nerds. But it was terribly prescient given what followed in the next 30 years - the people who were good at football didn't have the jobs, while the ones who weren't good at football and might have had trouble picking up girls in their teens were more than making money, they were changing the world."

Surely the apotheosis for those dubbed "geek" came with world wide web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee being cheered at the London 2012 opening ceremony.

And the appropriation of the word "nerd" was a "battle that got won", says Gaiman. "It's like many terms that were originally intended to offend, the team that was offended took it as its own as a badge of honour.

"It's part of a cycle, that terms of abuse are turned around - in this case it has been socially turned around."

So as more and more people become enthusiasts, traditional "nerd" and "geek" interests - Star Trek, comic books, anime, video games - are moving into the mainstream. The record for biggest US movie opening weekend is held by a movie based on comics.

Ben Whishaw, as Q in James Bond film Skyfall

But has anything been lost by this shift?

Some of those who self-identify as nerds and geeks look back nostalgically on the time their status felt rebellious, says Benjamin Nugent, author of American Nerd: The Story of My People. "This didn't come until the late 1980s and 1990s with Hollywood depictions of hackers taking on nefarious government corporations. They were turning into outlaws - pallid versions of Jesse James."

The addition of women into what was traditionally a male-orientated and male-dominated sub-culture has been a significant development, says Nugent.

But the hardcore take to forums like Reddit to deride those who think they are nerds and geeks but are perceived as lacking the right credentials.

One writes: "In my mind, a nerd is someone who is passionate about (and very good at) something - be it math, Irish literature, D&D, botany, whatever. Somewhere along the line, this changed to being part of a certain culture, watching this TV show and wearing that type of clothing. And that's such a different concept. Many think it devalues the word."

With the words "geek" and "nerd" primarily self-descriptions now, says blogger and game designer JR Blackwell, there are many different interpretations.

And as Gaiman says: "Nowadays, people own their nerd-dom."

Here is a selection of your comments.

I get annoyed to a great extent when people call themselves nerds simply because they play video games. A true nerd must know at least three movie speeches and a variety of awesome quotes. They must know the words inscribed on the one ring in English and in the black speech of Mordor and knowledge of Star Wars is mandatory. If they refuse to acknowledge Leonard Nimoy as the supreme being they have no chance of ever being considered a "real" geek. Reading comic books is also a major necessity for all nerds, however concessions can be made towards movie nerds. From the mouth of a true-nerd, Live long and prosper and may the force be with you. Always.

Archie Macdonald, Sutton, England

The "geek" is a person who pursues knowledge and seeks meaning. A "geek" generally has a more outward going, social nature. The meaning of the word has changed a great deal over time. For instance, it has been a term used for circus "freaks". It became another word for "nerd", but the rise of the socially adept 'geek' changed it's connotation again. It's now generally accepted as a positive word. A "nerd", on the other hand, is a "geek" who is socially inept. The meaning of this word hasn't changed since it was coined. It's still a derogatory word & no self-respecting "geek" would consider themselves a "nerd". As for myself, I'm a "geek". The fact that I've bothered to look up the etymology of the words is testament to that. Curiosity above all else!

Matthew Trow, Odiham, Hampshire

My son, who has just turned 13, proudly identifies himself as a geek. His spends every minute he can playing certain online games and wants to be a programmer. One of his favourite TV programmes is The Big Bang Theory and he thinks people like Brian Cox are cool. Fashion is even referred to as Geek Chic. I agree there has definitely been a turn around.

S Sims, Shrewsbury

Why do I self Identify as a nerd? Because it is what I was identified as before it became a culture word. When I was a kid, socialising held no interest to me, what interested me (and still does) were Comic books, cartoons and video games and films whereas most kids in my street were into football or playing hide-and-seek. Nerds are often portrayed as being outcasts and bully victims and I can tell you from my own Nerd-ish life that it seems to be true, at least in my case. Many times throughout my life have I been picked on for liking Pokemon, or Anime or even video games and throughout Primary school, I lived as a social outcast because of my disinterest in 'The Norm', even being referred to as a Freak for a long time! Crazy I know.

Sean McLaughlin, Londonderry, Northern Ireland

I use the word "nerd" more than "geek" as the latter seems a bit more dated, but neither feature heavily in my vocabulary. I am what some people may consider a nerd or a geek though. I am studying mathematics at university because I enjoy it as well as being fairly competent. I play video games, I read books and I am not good at sports. I have quirky little habits like organising my clothes by colour and spacing out my coat hangers evenly (signs of mild OCD perhaps). Is this "nerdy" or "geeky" or simply what makes me who I am? I think in this day and age there are as many definitions for geek and nerd as there are people.

Hannah, Guildford

I was surprised that train/bus spotters were not mentioned in the article. Being a bus enthusiast, I would class myself as a 'nerd,' or an 'anorak,' and I have no problem with these names. They help to define me, rather than being something to be ashamed of.

Rhys, Pontypridd, Wales

I am a geek and proud of it. I was originally trained as a test engineer back in the 80s and now I am a computer engineer. I am happy to be known as a geek but I see nerd as a derogatory term. I suscribe to the "geek is a nerd with social skills" description.

Sarah, Broadstone, Dorset

I'd call myself a nerd: a research scientist with no musical or athletic abilities, and just enough social skills to know I'm slightly socially awkward. I don't think of myself as cool enough to be a geek, although some friends call me that. Other people call themselves 'geeks' to fit in with the hipster crowd but they're really just followers of the trend. I agree with the blogger in his description of the trend de-valuing the words, but then that's happened with so many words that used to give out language such depth of expression.

KT, Plymouth

I've been called a geek, nerd etc. all through my life. I'm now 34 and, although it is refreshing to see intellectualism being promoted, it does seem that the terms have lost something along the way. The use across the board for things requiring no intellectual input, devalues the hardship that true geeks and nerds suffered because of abilities that others didn't possess or wouldn't work at.

Tom Kean, Seattle

I'm a "Revenge of the Nerds"-style nerd, who started writing programs in Assembly Language in 8th grade but didn't go on my first date till college. I used to be offended by the term, but now use both nerd and geek to describe myself with pride. And I definitely think people who describe themselves as "nerds" or "geeks" but lack fairly deep technical knowledge (and never experienced a flushie or wedgie from the jocks in high school) are deluding themselves.

John Stokes, Placentia, California

I started self-describing myself as a computer geek in the late 1990s, when my career took a turn toward computers. When I met my wife, that is how I introduced myself. I handed her a business card at a Christmas party and told her to call if she had any problems with her PC. She called a week later, said she was having an issue, backtracked and admitted she was just wanting an excuse to call. Since then, I have found that the term "Geek" has gone from derogatory to status symbol.

Justin Harvey, San Antonio, Texas

To be honest I find the word "boffin" far more offensive.

Paolo Sammut, UK

I still feel it's a bit rebellious to label yourself a nerd. I certainly label myself a nerd, and in my part of the world it still gets me funny looks a lot of the time. There are few socially acceptable things to be nerdy about here; sports is one of them. But the things I am nerdy about are not as accepted (music, medieval history, SFF lit, politics). It's sometimes very difficult to be myself around others, especially as a woman nerd. (It's pretty much completely okay to be a guy nerd, thanks to sexist double standards.)

Elizabeth, Madison, WI

A subject close to my heart. Belonging to a hard core set of geeks at Liverpool during the 90s studying Computer Science we were looked at with disdain and as freaks for evangelising technology. How times change.

Ed Austin, Edinburgh

My wife refers to me as a 'Jerd' or Jock/Nerd primarily because growing up and even now I do a lot of sport and keep reasonably fit. However at the same time I love computers, console gaming, table top roleplaying, wargaming, Larp and re-enactment and I am a huge Star Wars fan. At school 25(ish) years ago to do any of those things whilst being on the school sports teams would have been seriously frowned on and made me the subject of much ridicule so I kept my nerd side quiet. It wasn't until my late 20s and largely thanks to my wife when I discovered that being a nerd gives you access to more hobbies than you can shake a lightsaber at, some of the most interesting and best friends I have ever had and the ability to connect with people who you might otherwise never have spoken to who are quite frankly fascinating.

Kev Sutton, Stoke

I would describe myself as distinctly nerdish. My obsession is with bread-making. I have built a wood-fired bread oven in the garden. I constantly experiment with new recipes. Read books about bread. Watch you-tube films about bread-making and have built a sourdough proving box which I intend to link to a rasberry-pi to give to greater control over temperature and (hopefully) humidity. I'm also a birder who makes lists. The nerdish things I do are actually quite numerous. Until recently I've felt out of kilter with most people around me, but now at 64 I feel the English-speaking world is reorientating itself along magnetic lines that I'm familiar with.

Charlie Hilken, Dudley

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