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I Know What You Are, but What Am I?: What it Meant and Means to be a Nerd, Geek, or Techie  

Only a few years ago, the words “Nerd”, “Geek”, and “Techie” were not a compliment. Popular culture has influenced early ideas of what each of these words meant and created images of what kind of person would be identified as such. Iconic shows and movies like 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, 1985’s The Breakfast Club, 1999’s Freaks and Geeks, 2006’s The IT Crowd, 2014’s Silicon Valley, or 2015’s Mr. Robot, have largely shaped how we think someone in each of these categories looks, acts, and is capable of. 

While techie may be a newer term than Geeks or Nerds, each word conjures a very different image today than what it depicted pre-tech boom. What many people may not know, is that what these terms meant and have come to mean colloquially, are far from the origins of these words. 

ORIGINS 

Nerd 

The first recorded usage of the word “Nerd” was not from a college campus, tech start-up, or group of stereotypical “cool-kids” in an 80s high school movie – it was from the Dr. Seuss book If I Ran the Zoo. Yes, really. Dr. Seuss-the man who mocked political foibles with his satirical cartoons and who taught us to read with his silly, seemingly childish narratives with lessons on societal morality created the word nerd.  

On page 42 of this children’s book, Dr. Seuss wrote “And then, just to show them, I'll sail to Ka-Troo/And Bring Back an It-Kutch, a Preep, and a Proo,/A Nerkle, a Nerd, and a Seersucker too!1

Using this origin, the word means nothing more than a fictional animal! Wikipedia also claims other uses independent of Dr. Seuss including students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) using the term “knurd,” or drunk spelled backwards, to denote students who chose studying over partying, though this should be taken with a grain of salt2

Geek 

The origins of the word “geek” are a little more tricky to hunt down than the word “nerd.” Some etymologists believe the word originated from the Middle Low German word “Geck" which means "fool"2. Others refer to “gek,” an adjective that means crazy in Dutch and Afrikaans. Still other experts look to the word Gickeleshut, a term that means a jester’s hat in a specific part of France that was conquered back and forth by the Germans and French2


Techie 

According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, the first usage of the word techie came in the 1960s as an abbreviation for a student at a technical college

CURRENT MEANING 

Nerd 

According to WIRED, “As a general group, nerds tend to be highly attentive to and focused on details — an obsessive need to know every last fact about their special interest, regardless of what specifically that is.3” While this article acknowledges the generalization being made a New York Times article claims “We’re All Nerds Now.” In this article, self-proclaimed “nerd”, Wil Wheaton says ““Becoming mainstream is the wrong word; the mainstream is catching up. Tech has become so ubiquitous and seamless in our lives,” he said, “and because tech and personal tech and wearable tech are such a part of our daily existence, we want to know more about them.4”  

This begs the question, what is the differentiation between a “nerd” and a “techie”? Or could these terms just mean that a nerd or techie could just mean being a geek with specific interests in technology that leads them to want to know all they can about the field? 

Geek 

The term geek and nerd may seem incredibly close in meanings or they may seem lightyears apart depending on who you ask.  

The British News Network (BBC)called nerd a “sister word” of geek because they are so closely coupled5. This article even claims that there has been a reclamation period of the words “geek” and “nerd,”from their original negative societal connotation to the current connotation that alludes to someone having attributes of rich and famous tech geniuses such as Bill Gates or Steve Jobs5. This article continues, saying that currently geek is used as a descriptor such as a ‘”stats geek", "physics geek", "history geek"... "cocktail geek" or as a combination of these terms, a tech geek5,6.

Techie 

Techie may be a newer term when compared to nerd or geek, but that could easily be attributable to the development of modern technology since techie is currently considered to be defined as “a person who is very knowledgeable or enthusiastic about technology and especially high technology.7” 

If you “are...someone who is constantly keeping up to date with technology and with what it is doing for our world? You may be considered a techie!” according to Medium.com8. The website goes on to say “Techies can be people who are simply knowledgeable about technology, enthusiastic users of tech but do not necessarily work in the realm of tech. For example, you can be interested in tech gadgets and not know how they are made but know how they work, such as smartphone users.8”  

This ambiguous definition sounds surprisingly close to Wil Wheaton’s definition of a nerd, which, as shown by the BBC, is coupled with the term geek. 

SUMMARY 

“Nerd”, “Geek”, “Techie.” Each of these terms has definite connotations, for better or worse, but like any other term their meaning is fluid. Whether or not you ascribe to one of those terms, have been called one, or know someone who perfectly fits the description, the best part about any of these words is that their definition is up to you. You can choose to be one of them in their original meaning, one in their current meaning, all of them, none of them, or some combination. Whatever you choose to be identified as becomes part of the zeitgeist of that word. Whoever knows you and knows that you identify as a specific word will begin to attribute your characteristics to that word, which ultimately changes the meaning to that person. That person can then spread their definition of a word to others. This is how words change, gain, or lose meaning.  

Being yourself may mean that you share characteristics with one or more of these words and then choose to identify with one or more of these terms. Your identity is up to you, meaning you can choose to have a positive or negative association with nerd, geek, or techie and choose whether or not to identify as one. 

Do you identify as one of these words? Capitol Tech wants to know. Visit our Instagram page to take the poll now

References: 

  1. Brooks, D. (2008, May 23). The Alpha Geeks. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/23/opinion/23brooks.html?ref=opinion

  1. Wikipedia. (2020, April 17). Geek. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nerd#cite_note-14

  1. Schofield, K. (2018). Not All Nerds Are Made the Same. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/insights/2014/07/nerds-made/

  1. Cohen, N. (2014, September 13). We’re All Nerds Now. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/sunday-review/were-all-nerds-now.html

  1. Westscott, K. (2012, November 12). Are ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ now positive terms?. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20325517

  1. Parameswaran, D. (2019, August 15). Why this is the right time to be a tech geek. Retrieved from https://www.zoho.com/cliq/blog/why-this-is-the-right-time-to-be-a-tech-geek.html

  1. Merriam-Webster. (2020). Techie. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/techie.  

  1. Medium. (). 5 Signs You Are a Techie. Retrieved from https://medium.com/@KeepCoding_/5-signs-you-are-a-techie-f493594a2410