In-Depth: Nerd, dork, & geek

Defining the roles

The terms “nerd,” “dork,” and “geek” are used so frequently in everyday conversation that it is often unclear what the words themselves mean, or if they even have definite meanings.

The words have become cultural slang and social labels, so much so that they are perhaps constantly changing to fit the needs of each generation.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a nerd is an “unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits.” First used in 1951, its origin perhaps lies in the name of a creature in a children’s book by Dr. Seuss.

Merriam-Webster merely defines “dork” as slang, but Oxford American Dictionaries calls a dork a “dull, slow-witted, or socially inept person.” The first known use of this term was in 1967.

A geek is described as “a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked OR an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity” according to Merriam-Webster, and as “a person with an eccentric devotion to a particular interest” according to Oxford American Dictionaries.

The word itself probably comes from “geck fool” in English dialect and has origins in German. Merriam-Webster says its first known use was in 1914.

These may be the so-called official definitions of the words, but what they mean to people, especially high school students, can vary quite a bit from dictionary entries.

“[A geek] is really into video games, like World of Warcraft and that sort of thing,” senior Ali Meyer said. “A dork is someone who has a social life and is goofy with their friends – really unaware of what people are looking at and thinking of them. A nerd is super invested in their schoolwork, they’re best friends with all their teachers.”

According to sophomore Noam Kantor, the labels have more to do with a person’s smarts.

“I think that nerds, dorks, and geeks are set apart by what they do,” Kantor said. “I’d say ‘nerd’ is usually more academic-related or school-related, like someone who really likes to do, say, math, whereas a geek or a dork might be someone who is actually really bad at school or doesn’t really like school, but, say, likes to play a lot of video games. So it has to do with academic levels.”

Junior Andrew Spector, who considers himself a nerd, also thinks intellect plays a significant part in the definitions.

“A geek I always like to say, as it used to be in the British terms, is a guy who bites the head off chickens and lizards in carnivals, because people like that thing – but in modern-day terms, a geek has absolutely no idea about anything,” Spector said. “A nerd at least is an intellect. [A dork] is someone who either has intellect or physical ability, but isn’t particularly good with people.”

Other students, such as sophomore Ellie Gund, find all the terms synonymous. Similarly, senior Alison Bayley said all of the words have negative connotations, so they are pretty similar. However, she said that “nerd” is becoming more positive, because people often call themselves “nerds” without meaning it in a bad way.

According to Gund, there can be misconceptions about nerds.

“The negative connotation of being a nerd is that you don’t have a social life, but that’s not true,” Gund said.

To freshman Izzy Greenbladt, the words “nerd,” “dork,” and “geek” as labels can be interpreted in different ways depending on the setting.

“I think sometimes they can be hurtful, but it depends on who is using them and how they are using them,” Greenbladt said. “I call everyone a dork sometimes, but that’s just for fun because everyone has their own inner dork to me. With geek and nerd, though, those just seem more hurtful.”

On the other hand, some do not take the terms very seriously, but rather use them in positive ways.
“If someone calls me a dork I take it as a compliment,” Meyer said. “A nerd is also [good] because you’re studious and will do well for yourself. And I’m friends with lots of geeks. They all have positive connotations to me.”
History teacher Kurtis Werner said that the terms are less negative at CHS compared to other schools, because we are more accepting of different types of people.

“At a normal high school – to be a dork, a nerd, or a geek – it’s tough,” Werner said. “There are students who go through the rest of their lives hating high school because they were either teased, picked on, or bullied, so it really does have some very negative attributes.”

However, he said that different can also be good, particularly at CHS.

“Here the Harry Potter Club is kind of geeky, but at the same time it’s kind of cool, because they’re the best selling movies,” Werner said. “So you kind of have to take the good with the bad, and you have to find a middle ground in which you can relate to people and not necessarily value them by their geekiness, their nerdiness, or their dorkiness.”

When depicting high schools, Hollywood often uses terms such as “nerd,” “dork,” and “geek” when exaggerating and stereotyping specific social groups.

However, do Hollywood representations actually reflect some aspects of real high school social scenes?

“I’d say that in many cases, the labels define social groups, but that’s not absolute,” Kantor said. “I think a lot of times, the reason that defines social groups is because people will be in similar activities, so they’ll happen to hang out with each other because they’re interested in the same things. For example, I did the SRM [Student-Run Musical] this year, and it’s really interesting to see that I’m friends with a lot of people who I consider nerds, just because I’m in SRM with them.”

According to math teacher Annie Etling, perceptions of social labels change with age.

“I think when you’re older you see that it’s cool to be a dork, but in high school it does define school.”

Labels at CHS

At CHS the labels “geek”, “nerd”, and “dork” are used often. But whether or not these terms are positive or negative, they do have an effect on the student body.

These labels can define social groups, be hurtfully said, or be used playfully within the high school setting.

But CHS students have found that these terms have made their way into their daily conversations.

High school is a delicate time for teenagers because they are trying to figure out who they are, and how they are going to define themselves for the rest of their life.

“So teenagers are struggling to figure out who they are,” psychology teacher David Aiello said. “And how they resolve that question during adolescence, for most people, is laying out who they are going to be for the rest of their life – their personality, their friends, their likes, their dislikes, things of that sort.”

High school is a time of change, and at many public high schools students are forced to change social settings as they are separated from friends when they change schools.

But, as Aiello explained, the Clayton school system is different than many other public schools because there is only one middle school and high school that kids attend.

The result is that in Clayton, starting in sixth grade, students know most everyone else in their grade. But in many other schools, kids have a clean slate when they come to a new school, and so they can easily change their personality to figure out what types of people they identify with.

“You really get to try on different personalities and meet different people in these schools,” Aiello said. “And this may be one of the explanations as to why Clayton is not so clearly defined by cliques.”

It is difficult for CHS students to define each other in a two-dimensional way when they know their peers so thoroughly. This familiarity can lead to less defined groups and cliques. The labels of “nerd”, “dork”, and “geek” may define social groups at CHS somewhat, but not completely.

“I think it does [define social groups] at CHS somewhat,” senior Charlie Beard said. “But not as much as at other schools. I think there is more blending amongst the social groups at Clayton High School.”

While these labels may describe a person to a certain extent, students are often able to see beyond those descriptions.

“Labels are just ways we can simplify things,” Aiello said. “So we can do the more complex work.”

Some students believe these labels have negative connotations, but others believe that they are positive.

“If someone calls me a dork I take it as a compliment,” Meyer said. “A nerd is also [good] because you’re studious and will do well for yourself. And I’m friends with lots of geeks. They all have positive connotations to me.

Some students, like Spector, believe that the terms “nerd”, “dork”, and “geek” can be negative, but the labels do have a purpose in helping people know where they would comfortably belong.

“They have negative connotations,” Spector said. “But it really just serves to help people guess where they belong rather than trying repeatedly and not fitting in with various groups.”

Other students, like senior Amanda Davis, agree with Spector that the labels do have negative connotations.

“They’re good and bad labels,” Davis said. “Because it’s not good to label somebody like that. It’s not good to stereotype them.”
These negative connotations have evolved over time, as some have become more socially accepted.

Although technology has often been associated with “geekiness,” the recent exponential increase in technology and the country’s obsession with gadgets such as the iPhone, has moved technology away from the classic “uncool” and toward “cool.”

“Because technology has become such an integral part of our life, I think that that stereotype has softened a little bit,” Aiello said. “It’s now a lot more acceptable and sometimes cool to be a technologically savvy person.”

CHS is known for being academically successful, and, for some, it is this welcoming environment that allows for their academic pursuits.

Many students feel comfortable in making academics one of their top priorities without feeling socially exiled.

“I like the idea that being smart is cool at Clayton,” Aiello said. “And at a lot of schools that is not the case. Smart is only for the geeks and the nerds. But I think, in that sense, Clayton is a little ahead of the curve. For the most part, Clayton values its kids to be smart, and successful, and on the cutting edge of new research, new ideas, new tools, new gadgets. I think society has begun to catch up with us in that.”

Over the past few decades these labels and stereotypes have begun to change in society, and it can be seen in TV shows and movies, as they move from negative to more positive.

“I hate to make generalizations,” Aiello said. “But I think that when I was growing up, one of the worst names you could call somebody was a ‘Trekkie’—a person who was a fan of Star Trek—because they were the stereotypical pocket-protector users, and took all the really high math classes, and used graphing calculators before graphing calculators were the standard, and that was the real nerdy and geek kid, and they were definitely the sort of person you made fun and picked on.”

But now, 40 years later, the idea of a geek has become more accepted and even popular in popular culture.

“‘The Social Network’ is a perfect example of that,” Aiello said. “Here’s a total geek and yet he has become incredibly powerful and has used his ability to use technology to make a lot of money.”

Whether or not students believe the labels are positive or negative, it is impossible to define a person by a single word.

“So you kind of have to take the good with the bad,” Werner said. “And you have to kind of find a middle ground in which you can relate to people and not necessarily value them by their geekiness, their nerdiness, or the dorkiness.”

By Laura Bleeke and Jocelyn Lee