On “Geek” Versus “Nerd”

To many people, “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, but in fact they are a little different. Consider the phrase “sports geek” — an occasional substitute for “jock” and perhaps the arch-rival of a “nerd” in high-school folklore. If “geek” and “nerd” are synonyms, then “sports geek” might be an oxymoron. (Furthermore, “sports nerd” either doesn’t compute or means something else.)

In my mind, “geek” and “nerd” are related, but capture different dimensions of an intense dedication to a subject:

  • geek – An enthusiast of a particular topic or field. Geeks are “collection” oriented, gathering facts and mementos related to their subject of interest. They are obsessed with the newest, coolest, trendiest things that their subject has to offer.
  • nerd – A studious intellectual, although again of a particular topic or field. Nerds are “achievement” oriented, and focus their efforts on acquiring knowledge and skill over trivia and memorabilia.

Or, to put it pictorially à la The Simpsons:
geeknerd-simpsons

Both are dedicated to their subjects, and sometimes socially awkward. The distinction is that geeks are fans of their subjects, and nerds are practitioners of them. A computer geek might read Wired and tap the Silicon Valley rumor-mill for leads on the next hot-new-thing, while a computer nerd might read CLRS and keep an eye out for clever new ways of applying Dijkstra’s algorithm. Note that, while not synonyms, they are not necessarily distinct either: many geeks are also nerds (and vice versa).

An Experiment

Do I have any evidence for this contrast? (By the way, this viewpoint dates back to a grad-school conversation with fellow geek/nerd Bryan Barnes, now a physicist at NIST.) The Wiktionary entries for “geek” and “nerd” lend some credence to my position, but I’d like something a bit more empirical…

“You shall know a word by the company it keeps” ~ J.R. Firth (1957)

To characterize the similarities and differences between “geek” and “nerd,” maybe we can find the other words that tend to keep them company, and see if these linguistic companions support my point of view?

Data and Method

(Note: If you’re neither a geek nor a nerd, don’t be scared by the math. It’s not too bad… or you can probably just skip to the “Results” subsection below…)

I analyzed two sources of Twitter data, since it’s readily available and pretty geeky/nerdy to boot. This includes a background corpus of 2.6 million tweets via the streaming API from between December 6, 2012, and January 3, 2013. I also sampled tweets via the search API matching the query terms “geek” and “nerd” during the same time period (38.8k and 30.6k total, respectively). Yes, yes, yes… I collected all the data six months ago but just now got around to crunching the numbers. It’s been a busy year!

A great little statistic for measuring how much company two words tend to keep is pointwise mutual information (PMI). It’s commonly used in the information retrieval literature to measure the cooccurrence of words and phrases in text, and it also turns out to be a good predictor of how humans evaluate semantic word similarity (Recchia & Jones, 2009) and topic model quality (Newman & al., 2010).

For two words w and v, the PMI is given by:

{\rm pmi}(w;v) = \log\frac{p(w,v)}{p(w)p(v)} = \log p(w|v) - \log p(w) ,

where in this case p(\cdot) is the probability of the word(s) in question appearing in a random tweet, as estimated from the data. For instance, if we let v = “geek,” we compute the log-probability of a word w in the “geek” search corpus, and subtract the log-probability of w in the background corpus.

Results

The PMI statistic measures a kind of correlation: a positive PMI score for two words means they “keep great company,” a negative score means they tend to keep their distance, and a score close to zero means they bump into each other more or less at random.

With that in mind, here is a scatterplot of various words according to their PMI scores for both “geek” and “nerd” on different axes (ignoring words with negative PMI, and treating #hashtags as distinct):
geeknerd-plot-01

Many people have asked for a high-res PDF of this plot, so here you go.

Moving up the vertical axis, words become more geeky (“#music” → “#gadget” → “#cosplay”), and moving left to right they become more nerdy (“education” → “grammar” → “neuroscience”). Words along the diagonal are similarly geeky and nerdy, including social (“#awkward”, “weirdo”), mainstream tech (“#computers”, “#microsoft”), and sci-fi/fantasy terms (“doctorwho,” “#thehobbit”). Words in the lower-left (“chores,” “vegetables,” “boobies”) aren’t really associated with either, while those in the upper-right (“#avengers”, “#gamer”, “#glasses”) are strongly tied to both. Orange words are more geeky than nerdy, and blue words are the opposite. Some observations:

  • Collections are geeky. All derivatives of the word “collect” (“collection,” “collectables”, etc.) are orange. As are “boxset” and “#original,” which imply a taste for completeness and authenticity.
  • Academic fields are nerdy“math”, “#history,” “physics,” “biology,” “neuroscience,” “biochemistry,” etc. Other academic words (“thesis”, “#studymode”) and institutions (“harvard”, “oxford”) are also blue.
  • The science & technology words differ. General terms (“#computers,” “#bigdata”) are on the diagonal — similarly geeky and nerdy. As you splay up toward more geeky, though, you see products, startups, brands, and more cultish technologies (“#apple”, “#linux”). As you splay down toward more nerdy you see more methodologies (“calculus”).
  • #Hashtags are geeky. OK, sure, hashtags are all over the place. But they do tend toward the upper-left. And since hashtags are “#trendy,” I take it to mean that geeks are into trends. (I take this one back. The average PMI score for all hashtags is 0.74 with “geek” but 0.73 with “nerd.” The difference isn’t statistically significant using a paired t-test or Wilcoxon test, or practically significant using a common-sense test.)
  • Hobbies: compare the more geeky pastimes (“#toys,” “#manga”) with the more nerdy ones (“chess,” “sudoku”).
  • Brains: the word “intelligence” may be geeky, but “education,” “intellectual,” and “#smartypants” are nerdy.
  • Reading: “#books” are nerdy, but “ebooks” and “ibooks” are geeky.
  • Pop culture vs. high culture: “#shiny” and “#trendy” are super-geeky, but (curiously) “cellist” is the nerdiest

The list goes on. If you want to poke around yourself, download the raw PMI scores (4.2mb) and let me know in the comments what you find. Since many people have asked: I computed PMI for all words appearing in the search tweets with “geek” and “nerd” (millions) and then manually scanned roughly 7,500 words with positive PMI scores for both. The scatterplot contains about 300 words that I hand-picked because they made sense.

(Update: I learned that Olivia Culpo — a self-described “cellist nerd” — was crowned Miss Universe on December 20, 2012. The event was heavily tweeted smack in the middle of my data collection, so that probably explains the correlation between “cellist” and “nerd” here. It also underscores the limitations of time-sensitive data.)

Conclusion

In broad strokes, it seems to me that geeky words are more about stuff (e.g., “#stuff”), while nerdy words are more about ideas (e.g., “hypothesis”). Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff; nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas. Of course, geeks can collect ideas and nerds play with stuff, too. Plus, they aren’t two distinct personalities as much as different aspects of personality. Generally, the data seem to affirm my thinking.

I wonder how similar the results would be if you applied this method to the Google Books Ngrams corpus, or something more general instead of a niche media like Twitter. I also wonder what other questions might be answered with this kind of analysis (for example, my wife and I have a perennial disagreement over which word is wetter: “moist” vs. “damp.”).

Finally, when I mentioned to a friend that I was going to write up this post, she said “Well, I guess we know which one you are.” But do we really? I may be a science nerd, but I’m probably a music geek

Update (June 25, 2013): Woah. This has gotten more attention than I ever anticipated. A few impressions. (1) Prior to writing this, I had no idea there was a “geek vs. nerd” holy war in certain corners of the Internet; fueling these flamewars was certainly not my intent. Lighten up! (2) I fear I’ll be better known for this diversion than for any of my “real” research. To be clear: this was a fun way to kill a few hours on a Saturday afternoon, not necessarily my best science. I think the writeup here is sound and self-evident, but I’m the first to acknowledge that there are better corpora, methods, and analysis techniques — which could use a grant, grad student, and/or more than an afternoon — for uncovering this all-important “Truth.” (3) For those interested in the etymologies of “geek” and “nerd,” I found this cool writeup.

310 Comments Add yours

  1. This is a lesson for me. I could never really have defined the different meanings of those two words

  2. emilia16980 says:

    THANK YOU! I am literally going to show this to all of my friends, and hopefully they will FINALLY get the difference between a geek and a nerd!
    Thanks for writing such an awesome post!

  3. This is great. So many folks don’t realize that a difference even exists between geekiness and nerdiness. You not only clarify the differences between the two, but you also clarify the definitions of the terms themselves. Neither one is a bad thing at all.

  4. Bravo. My husband has always said we’re nerds, not geeks. (We’re both computer programmers very interested in the dirty details of how things work more than in any specific trending technology.) A friend disagreed on the grounds of “nerd”‘s negative connotations and the fact that we’re personable people. I guess nerds normally aren’t? In any case, now we have empirical data to back up our claim.

  5. purpleauthor says:

    Yes! I have argued this point numerous times, but people always refuse to accept it. I am glad that now I have proof that I am not, in fact, a science geek, but a nerd!

  6. Dee Bee says:

    I actually had this discussion with my boyfriend the other day, and had a very hard time explaining the difference… however you’ve done so perfectly! will have to forward this onto him. thanks for putting this in more eloquent terms than i ever could 🙂

  7. kickerkim says:

    This is exceptional work!!!!! The only problem was I wasn’t sure whether to describe myself as a geek or nerd for liking it..

  8. oogenhand says:

    Reblogged this on oogenhand and commented:
    I slowly turned from a nerd into a geek.

  9. The Hitchhiker says:

    I found your article insightful, amusing, and well-written, and I respond with a much shorter analysis of my own: http://moderndayhitchhiker.com/2013/06/05/the-nerd-continuum/

  10. ranndumm69 says:

    Thank you for clarifying!

  11. A nerd will tell you how a spaceship could fly, a geek will tell you who should fly it.

    1. That is perhaps the best definition I have ever heard.

    2. Zocalo says:

      The Best comment 🙂

  12. DTI April says:

    Thanks! I’m definitely a ‘geek’ then XD

  13. apanon says:

    I was just talking about the semantic differences between these words with a friend. This basically confirms the conclusion I’d reached intuitively, but it is wonderful to see it spelled out in a way that makes *sense*.

    Now i just need to know where “dork” fits in.

  14. Steve Koch says:

    Moist is definitely wetter than damp. Great post!

  15. Midwestern Plant Girl says:

    Whew, glad you cleared that up for me…
    I’m a plant geek-nerd or nerd-geek.

  16. Gabriel says:

    I couldn’t resist taking a look at the raw data, and in a simple analisys added a column with the difference between the scores of each word of the columns geek and nerd. Thus, I could see which words are exclusivelly geekiest and which are exclusivelly nerdiest.

    1) #geek is among the top 10 words nerds use / and #nerd is among the top words used by geeks (wonder if it is becouse one is worried at being the other)
    2) miniskirt is the nerdiest word (perhaps thats why celist is nerdy – not the musical trend) – along with nadeshot (call of duty champ)
    3) instructables and #todosobretec are the geekiest – both viewed by mass consumers – along with #ashby

    Can we infer on the common gender of a geek and a nerd?
    (don’t want to start a flame war, just wondering with my pre-conceptions)

    1. Gabriel says:

      Maculinea post seems to give more hints (top 5 on each category):

      Nerd: jock, rings, gamer, #lotr,#thehobbit
      Geek: topshop, blazers, tshirt, tees, tops

    2. burrsettles says:

      1) is just an artifact of the way I made the data: I filtered out all derivatives of “geek” in the “geek” corpus, and “nerd” in the “nerd” corpus, but forgot to filter them across the board, so that’s why they have zero PMI with themselves. Sorry for the confusion!

  17. Peat Bakke says:

    Sports nerds exist! They’re the professional sports medicine and trainers who endlessly seek to research, measure, and improve performance through science. 🙂

  18. Joe Levy says:

    I like it. But the author shows some bias, assuming that nerds are more active participants (“practitioners”) in their fields, while geeks are passive consumers (of media and collections). The evidence presented does not bear this out; nor does my experience (in which geeks are at least as likely as nerds are to actively participate in, and contribute to, their fields).

  19. Eyrieowl says:

    There seems to be a problem in the raw data…it ends in ‘t’ and doesn’t include, say, violin or viola, or anything else which might be at the end of the alphabet. Looks like you need to have a second sheet to the data file, b/c you hit your row limit. Did your analysis account for those terms? Or did you leave out the bottom of the alphabet entirely?

    1. burrsettles says:

      Good catch! I think it should be fixed now.

  20. A geek is someone who bites off the heads of chickens.

    A nerd is someone who knows that fact.

    Seriously though, the PMI analysis is really interesting. I’m an English teacher and I’m quite interested in using this kind of analysis to find out how words collocate with each other. Could you give me any tips on how I might do that?

  21. asymptotically says:

    Awesome. I always used the two words differently, but when asked, I could never tell what the differences actually is. You put so well, perfectly.

  22. Loren Riley says:

    I am really glad you used pictures BEFORE launching into the stats section. That was helpful.

  23. newguyontheblock says:

    This is genius!

  24. jensine says:

    neither geek nor nerd, possibly a neek or a gerd …. 🙂

  25. kiki2point0 says:

    This was an awesome way to clarify the differences. I totally geek out over certain things (videogames) and I am definitely a psychology nerd (two psych degrees later shows this) but I am also a huge bibliophile (read, writing, collecting). So does that make me a book geek or a book nerd? I love your graph, visual diagrams like that rock my world!

  26. Jim Sowers says:

    Would like to have seen #unicycle on the graph, since unicycling is more common among nerds; AND Claude Shannon, the father information theory was a unicyclist 🙂

  27. laryter says:

    Great analysis! Love the imagery taken from the Simpsons (though not all geeks are as fluffy;)

  28. Olivia says:

    This reminds me of an assignment my computer science professor had us do a couple years ago where we had to differentiate between nerd, geek, and dork haha

  29. doibledottie says:

    I’m in the fitness industry and you hear people referred to as “fitness-nerds.” I enjoyed your presentation.

  30. EB says:

    When you get a bit of time next year, will you figure out where ‘dork’ fits in?

    1. burrsettles says:

      You should check out the raw data I posted. 🙂

  31. Aspieguy says:

    I like this and I accept your research, even though it somewhat conflicts with definitions that I came up with several years ago (without any formal research). I do believe there’s some overlap between these categories:

    Geek – takes delight in learning everything they can about selected subjects even when the information has no practical use.

    Nerd – a studious person who is socially awkward.

    Dope – a non-studious person who is socially awkward.

    Dweeb – a person with hygiene/fashion challenges.

    Dork – a person who does not know how to modify their presentation of themselves for social display and/or has no interest in doing so.

  32. Can you be a geeky nerd? Or a nerdy geek?

  33. Pete Calvert says:

    I’ve been using http://laughingsquid.com/nerd-venn-diagram-geek-dork-or-dweeb/ for the last few years. but this post provides a nice alternate.

  34. ensorcellent says:

    Reblogged this on Nerd Adventures Through Normalcy and commented:
    I really love this. I have created so many experiments in my head about things such as this. I feel inspired to actually do these crazy social experiments.

  35. kangaroo says:

    So interesting. I wonder that, have you compared the pmi(geek, nerd)?

    1. Yea, its in the raw data file

  36. Maxine says:

    I have a bit of a problem with your usage of Twitter for data, from your definition, aren’t geeks more likely to use Twitter than nerds? And so your sampling is biased? maybe asking college students at different schools using Facebook/ face to face asking might be a better tool? Also more time consuming.. Good article!

  37. Interestingly, however distinct the meaning most people still view geek and nerd as the same since most people lack the interest to correct it. Great post by the way.

  38. harrypeat says:

    Too futile to finish.

  39. weightlossbloguk says:

    What a strange but surprisingly interesting post!

  40. Pink Woods says:

    Brilliant! I never think of the difference before. Now, I can differentiate it. Cool! 🙂

  41. Leah says:

    Moist is wetter than damp! Of course it is! Moist glistens with moisture! Damp is so barely wet that you can sit on it for five minutes before you notice it has soaked through.

  42. waynelaw says:

    Thank you for this important work…I had a sense that there was some strife between the nerd and geek kingdoms and your post explains it perfectly. After reading this I think I fall into the category of poser-nerd.

  43. pkthundr7 says:

    There is a huge community of sports nerds in baseball, aka sabremetricians (statisticians who study baseball). Just checkout fangraphs.com

  44. Reblogged this on Tepid Penguin and commented:
    This is the best clarification of Geek vs Nerd that I have ever seen. I do feel I fall into ‘Geek’. & proud of it! This was fun to read!

  45. awaddle05 says:

    Reblogged this on Master Procraster and commented:
    I love when people use their superior intellect on awesome things like this.

  46. Juliana says:

    damp is wetter.

  47. LV Lewis says:

    Reblogged this on L. V. Lewis and commented:
    I’ve always known there was a difference, but like most folks I’ve used the word interchangeably. But no more!

  48. Reblogged this on ELT in Extremistan and commented:
    Geeks aren’t necessarily nerds and nerds aren’t necessarily geeks, but they usually are, and they’re usually introverts. It’s probably something to do with thinking deeply on niche subjects. I’m definitely a educational nerd (research, psychology, pedagogy, etc), but also something of a movie/game/music geek (collecting trivia as well as the things themselves). The world is run by nerds isn’t it? They work in the background making iphones, finding cures to diseases, writing policy documents, . Everybody else is just along for the ride 😉

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s