What is a Geek?

Geek, not Greek. When I’m not paying attention, those words look remarkably similar. It gets especially interesting when reading regencies, where ‘greeking’ was a term associated with cheating at cards.

Merriam-Webster is not overly positive on the subject of geeks, defining it as 1) a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked, or, 2) an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity.

The second one isn’t too bad, at least, and there’s a note at the bottom explaining that geek has increasingly positive connotations nowadays. Phew. For a moment, I thought we were back in the fifties, or what Hollywood thinks is the fifties.

And of course, because geeks are often intellectuals, there’s a lot of nosing around the subject, ‘what about X?’ and testing the limits of the English language to sort out what a geek really is, and wondering if the dictionary is compiled by a bunch of normies who wouldn’t know geekery if they fell over it. Hell hath no fury like a geek defending his latest enthusiasm.

I don’t think of myself as a geek, as some of you discovered in a separate discussion yesterday. The closest I get is geek-adjacent. I’m mildly interested in a lot of things, but not obsessive; I don’t talk enough to fulfill the ‘passionately but awkwardly holding forth on a subject until the listener’s eyes glaze over’ requirement; I’m unfortunately allergic to numbers and technology; most of the usual fandoms, hobbies, and interests commonly associated with geeks are a blank to me. And so on. And I don’t believe that merely having hobbies (of any sort) is enough to qualify a person as a geek; that would make the term so broad as to be useless.

What does the term ‘geek’ mean to you? How is it different from that related category, ‘nerd’? What does a ‘normie’ or non-geek look like? Is geekery purely a state of mind, or does it include specific interests, hobbies, or fandoms? Is it a social classification? How has the increasing popularity of certain geek-associated fandoms, for example, Lord of the Rings, the Marvel Comics Universe, et cetera, altered the way individuals and society think of geeks and geekdom?

Play nice in the comments section, ladies and gents. I’m going to have a nap and see if I can’t kick this cold that won’t go away.

34 thoughts on “What is a Geek?

  1. I think that (somewhat ironically given its origins) “geek” has become a more trendy label out in the wild. A nerd is still considered a lovable misfit with less than mainstream hobbies, while a geek is any moderately hardcore fan of something either techy or seen as technophile-adjacent (Tolkien derivatives, or Marvel Cinematic Universe, for instance), and “geeking out” seems nearly like a synonym for squeeing, from the usage I have seen.

  2. It’s a tricky question. I can’t lose the old Carnie connotations of “Geek”, that being the term used for the person who bit the heads off of chickens. To me, therefore, “Geek” signifies a person not on the human spectrum, a sort of monster in human form, if benign.

    I’ll own “Nerd”. I’ll even own the notion that it’s on the high-performing end of the autism spectrum which I see as a sort of continuum. Loosely, it signifies to me someone with a deep interest (hobby level or more) in one or more (or many) human intellectual or craft endeavors, whether that’s model railroads, Renaissance poetry, wombat genetics, Indo-European, Foxhunting, Marvel Comics Universe, or what have you — the list is infinite. Naturally, Nerds are boring to non-Nerds, but not necessarily to other Nerds who are often shopping for yet another enthusiasm. Anyone who was ever fascinated by dinosaur books as a young child and spouted their names off at the dinner table is a candidate. It’s a normal human “type”, since specialist and particular knowledge of things and their relationships is clearly a survival trait for humans.

    I’ve heard there is a concept called “Normal” populated by “Normies”, but it’s hard to talk to them without scaring them away, so I don’t know much about them… Nerds who have studied social normality and its conversational gambits are sometimes able to pass… 🙂

  3. These days? A consumer (or consooooomer) who tries to make a franchise brand into an identity.

    We ‘geeks’ of the 90s didn’t realize how good we had it being niche. The worst thing that could have happened to our hobbies is that they gained ‘mainstream respect.’

    1. Part of the reason I’ve taken some of my marvel comics t-shirts out of my regular wearing rotation is to distance myself a bit from the “lifestyle brand” they’ve been trying to build it into. RedLetterMedia did a great job of skewering the type in one of their recurring shows about geekery podcasts (who are mostly made up of shills). Whenever I see an old avengers t-shirt of mine I can hear them feeling out (squeeing) in my head and I set it aside.

      1. -open mouthed squeal-

        Just thinking about it makes my testosterone drop.

        This guy has a great series about the rise and fall of geek/nerd culture. I recommend it.

        1. Okay, just finished watching all five parts.

          It looks like I totally missed the left capture of Nerd/Geek culture while I was raising my daughter. I participated in almost none of the culture he describes after Devo and Revenge of the Nerds. I did fanfic, some cosplay, some cons.

          I highly objected to his characterization of the culture as consumerism. Where was fanfic? Where was lovingly creating your own cosplay costume from scratch?

          I only continued watching because it recommended here, and boy am I glad I continued on to the last part. Which I can wholeheartedly agree with.

          1. Where was fanfic? Where was lovingly creating your own cosplay costume from scratch?

            Where is stopping by Riverside, Iowa, to take a picture with Kirk’s bronze statue? Where is meeting people you only know from online, based on a shared passion for, well, geekery? Worrying about others in your fandom?

            I don’t agree with his conclusions as being about actual geek culture; heck, the ‘geek culture’ he appears to be looking at is just fads.

            Geeks can engage in fads, but …. wow. It’s like reading a history of Star Trek fandom that starts with Deep Space 9. Fallen Angels by Dr. Pournelle has a thriving geek culture in it, and I read that when I was a kid!

            Rick and Marty as a norm for geek? That postdates the My Little Pony fad. Wait, what about the Twilight Moms that invaded DragonCon?
            What about ThinkGeek existing?

            MMOs being common, rather than niche?

            Anime shirts?

            Heck, the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe being cool?

            1. My Little Pony brings back memories. Daughter was into that growing up. I think that might have been when I was introduced to the ideas of bromance and bronies, although I may be mixing things up. That was when I had to make up stories about unicorns and keep track of the colors of everything.

              1. There is a known overlap.

                My girls are a lot younger than yours, but still– I remember having decent conversations with guys based on show my baby girls were watching.

          2. Admittedly, there are some gaps in his knowledge. He’s also lamented the inability of conservatives to create an independent franchise with an engaged fan following. But I think this was before Nick Cole and Jason Anspach hit it big with Galaxy’s Edge

            1. It does sound like I simply missed most of the things he was criticizing about geek culture because I was not involved in it. Didn’t watch those shows or play those games.

              1. Five? Don’t forget Part 6/the epilogue “On Love and LARP,” that touches on some of the points you made.

  4. I’ve always considered myself a nerd (or a dork) as opposed to a geek. I wonder if there is a certain lack of self awareness that separates them all from each other, but then again there is a lot of overlap, too. Perhaps geeks are more emotionally involved than nerds, for example when The Force Awakens trailer came out the geeks were in noisy tears over the very sight of the Millennium Falcon.

      1. We were in the process of moving back from Japan at the time so I had bigger things on my mind, but by the time we were settled and The Last Jedi had come out I had checked out. We watch old Star Trek now, from TOS through DS9, and since there are so many episodes it never feels like reruns. My kids don’t care about Star Wars at all, I think they consider it old people stuff and they have their own things they’re nerdy or geeky about.

        1. Tragic, but understandable. Star Wars could have been a cultural mythology that persisted, but now I think it’s for the best it dies.

          I’ll always remember the 90s, when there was nothing Star Wars on screen, and I had to eagerly await the latest novels to know what was happening to my heroes post Return of the Jedi and speculating if new movies or shows might come out.

          Never has a franchise with so much going for it been so grievously mishandled.

          1. Tragic, but understandable. Star Wars could have been a cultural mythology that persisted, but now I think it’s for the best it dies.

            Instant response: rejection.

            Sure, the hijacking needs to die.

            …. my daughter is named for an Expanded Universe character.

            Not only do I not go for the new stuff, I have zero f’s to give for rolling with Lucas’ temper tantrum in “oh, wait, those stories are more popular than mine.”

            1. But at this point, the damage to the brand and the heroes are so bad that it would take a reboot to fix. Who’s going to do that? It would be a humiliating admission and tantamount to rejecting Kennedy’s agenda. Disney would never do it.

              And even if they did, can people just forget what they saw or heard of on the big screen?

              Look at Han alone. I can’t describe how painful it was, seeing everything he’d accomplished undone – not just in the movies, but his relationship with Leia, their kids – then seeing him shanked like a punk and tossed.

              And yeah, speaking of their kids and Lucas, I always thought the franchise post-ROTJ needed to stop after the New Jedi Order storyarc, or at least lie fallow and pick up a few years later in real time and a few centuries later in universe. It was clear the writers didn’t know where to go: that awful Darth Jacen storyline and the way Mara died turned me off the franchise altogether (the prequels had already turned me off the movies).

              1. But at this point, the damage to the brand and the heroes are so bad that it would take a reboot to fix.

                Not really, the Sherlock option is there.

                Has been since the prequels– I know I’m not alone in going “those didn’t really happen.”

                Fans can, and do, have head-canon.

  5. Younger daughter called me geeky when I said that I wanted to write about Federico da Montefeltro and Sigismondo Malatesta because the names were so great.

  6. What does the term ‘geek’ mean to you? How is it different from that related category, ‘nerd’?

    Last one first, a geek is a pack form of a nerd. 😀

    To me, geek is someone who loves a thing enough to be public about it. The late Benedict the 16th was definitely a geek, though of religion. He very obviously and deeply loved his fandom, even if it was theology instead of Star Trek.

  7. I… may be the odd ball here. When I was growing up ‘Geek’ was the general term. It was someone who was broadly into a great many things that required brain power. The Geek was the kid who knew computers (for reference: I was born in 80 so computers were considered a bit niche for most of my childhood) and games (outside of ‘normal’ board games and cards) and read non-fiction for fun rather than because someone made them and read Science fiction and fantasy and comic books. That was the geek.

    The Nerd was the monofocused. You had ‘Band nerds” or “Art nerds” or “Space Nerds”. Those were the ones who were laser focused on their one field and could tell you everything about that field for hours on end. The kids who read comic books but didn’t get into much of the other stuff were nerds. Then I got out into the rest of the world and discovered everyone else used them the other way around.

    1. The other way ’round was the way I always understood it. Geeks had some object of monomania they couldn’t shut up about, and were likely to do weird things like come to school wearing a cape, while nerds were just generally brainy and socially awkward. There’s a lot of overlap, of course; when I was in high school in the ’80s, you could be a band nerd (I was) if music was your big thing, a math nerd, etc. You could also be a total geek about any of those things, too, depending on how you approached it or presented yourself.

      As for the geeks/nerds becoming cool, well, I don’t know that they really are. What’s cool is *looking* like a geek, not being one. Certainly not being a nerd; being cool on purpose isn’t in the nerd’s nature. I think pop culture, driven by Hollywood (spit) is wearing “geeks and nerds” like a money-printing skinsuit. And gaslighting all the unsuspecting, socially awkward, mostly gentle souls who really are nerds/geeks in the process, as leftists (spit) are driven to do.

      Seems to me there was a watershed moment in the early 2k, when the LoTR movies and Harry Potter movies came out. Previously, the blinkered idiots who run Hollywood didn’t think fantasy and comic books were real stories, and never treated them as such, which is why pretty much all attempts at those movies sucked. And because it’s hard to get many people to watch movies that truly suck, it was a self-fulfilling expectation.

      Then, all at once, The Fellowship of the Ring *didn’t* suck and made a billion dollars, and that children’s fantasy movie also didn’t suck and made even more because adults loved it too — and a moneymaking template having been established, it was off to the races for geek/nerd properties.

      Anyway…yeah. For the record, everyone here is a nerd. Hardcore.

      This is the kind of thing nerds, not geeks, talk about. As Luke says, the nerd marker is “thinks too much.” The geeks are all somewhere else taking games way too seriously…fanfic, cosplay, getting teary-eyed over the Millennium Falcon, etc. (some of us will also be over there doing those things, too).

    2. I’m close to this one. “Computer geek” was almost a single word when I was in my teens. A geek wasn’t necessarily bad, just sooooooo into something academic or technical (or a franchise/author/artist RabidFan) that social niceties went by the wayside. Nerds were the bright but somewhat awkward kids who did really well in an academic field but didn’t bathe in it. “Nerd” was a half-insult outside the group, and a badge of pride inside the group (“Yeah, I’m a Latin nerd. And you’re a [crude phrase in vulgar, late-Imperial Latin correctly conjugated, using Classical Latin pronunciation].”) I don’t recall anyone self-identifying as a geek until, oh, the early 2000s, maybe later.

      Oh, and geeks were always male. Nerds came in both sexes.

      1. Could be. We might have been right at the shifting point, with the original usage 99% faded away, and a new usage starting to come in. The new usage was still sorting itself out, as was “nerd,” and so what started as a niche term (computergeek) was then expanded (to geek out – wild excitement about a new computer/chip/ drive/program that worked), and so on.

  8. I must note that the etymologists actively geeking out over words took pains to separate the meaning of geek from themselves, without any real justification.

    A generalized view of the old carny definition tends to color my view of geeks. (i.e. someone who actively turns themselves into a freak.)
    And yeah, I’m totally guilty. Bring up one of the many topics I’ve obsessed about over the years, and I’ll make eyes glaze over. (Or expose the fellow-travelers who will happily geek out with me, but won’t start it.)

    A nerd is context dependent. It’s someone who thinks too much, and “too much” is widely variable. (The percentage of people who don’t want to think too much seems pretty constant. But In general, it seems to me, that females have a much lower tolerance. Listening to, and taking the advice of, a social inferior seems to have markedly different responses across the gender line.)
    I’m frequently a nerd. (Demonstrated above.)
    Unless my impulsiveness kicks in. And obsessive focus then causes me to tune out “extraneous” information.

    I &)(&&)( HATE that my entertainments have become social signaling markers for the great mass of people who couldn’t care less about the purpose or content of these entertainments.
    And I especially hate the companies that actively destroy things i love, while patting me on the head and telling me i should be grateful that they’re making them “popular”.

  9. I think nerd and geek are basically words for similar phenomena that have varied and switched back and forth in meaning over the last several decades. Social awkwardness seems to the common attribute of both. A nerd or a geek may learn to compensate for social awkwardness, but it is an ongoing required use of energy. This is why a nerd/geek tends to be seen as an introvert, using the definition of introvert that means being around people tends to drain energy, while being alone tends to restore it. I don’t think that’s necessarily true: I think there can be extraverted nerds / geeks.

    I was in my late 20’s and either in the Air Force or just getting out when Revenge of the Nerds came out, and saw myself basically as a nerd at the time. Then, at some point after that, I remember encountering people calling themselves geeks online (I don’t remember whether this was before or after the internet). At the time, it seemed to me to be a term for nerds who were into tech, especially computer tech. I had never heard the “carnie” definition of geek before then, so since I first encountered the term in reference to people like me, I never saw it as having anything to do with being a monster, benign or otherwise. It was just a new word for nerd.

    As I continued working in IT over the years, I encountered people using the term “geek” to refer to non-technical areas as well, which I found surprising. But if the graphics designer for our website wanted to call herself a geek, I saw no reason to correct her. I think maybe the reason “geek” started out as tech-based was simply because the first place that allowed nerds/geeks to talk about their interests with lots of other people with similar interests was online. And originally, you had to have some (actually, at the beginning, a LOT of) interest in tech to get online and join online communities.


  10. Part 2

    Over the years, socially awkward seems to be the continuing definition of both nerd and geek. Perhaps there is a sense that a nerd is embarrassed to be socially awkward, but the geek owns it? Somehow, the geek is seen as more deliberately anti-social? I think that geek probably still has more of a negative overtone, maybe because a nerd is seen as more harmless, but a geek could be dangerous? Just some musings there.

    So what is a geek, besides someone who is socially awkward? Here are some ideas. A geek may be someone who has a constant running conversation in her head that may or may not have to do with what is actually going on around her. Someone who has one or more intense interests that she loves the way some people love other people, except that these interests can go from 100 to 0 within days or hours. Because of the intensity of this interest or interests, she has a tendency to get very good at them. If the interest is in a STEM field, she tends to be seen as “smart” or “intellectual”, otherwise, not necessarily.

    That is all.

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