Saturday, August 02, 2008

Dorks, Nerds, and Geeks

In the furtherance of my mission to write about things that most people couldn't care less about, today I'd like to talk about dorks, nerds, and geeks -- or more specifically, the words "dork," "nerd," and "geek."

At one point all three of these words were more or less synonymous, but with the passage of time, they have acquired subtle -- and sometimes not so subtle -- distinctions.

Originally, "dork" was a slang term for "penis," in much the same way that "dick," "prick," "weenie," "cock," et al still are today. I believe I first heard the word "dork" used this way in the 1981 animated film Heavy Metal, and if my memory serves me correctly, I believe this was the last time I heard the word "dork" used this way as well.

For some reason, "dork" never caught on as a slang term for "penis" -- probably because there were hundreds of competing words that were already in frequent use. (Note that the fate of the word "dork" is not unique in this respect. The word "wang" enjoyed a certain amount of popularity at one time but is now rarely, if ever, used.)

Nonetheless, "dork" somehow made the jump from literal slang term for "penis" to figurative slang term for "penis," so calling someone a dork is now somewhat akin to calling him a dick or a prick or a weenie.

(As a tangential remark, I think it's interesting to note that even though "dork," "dick," "prick," and "weenie" are basically synonymous in their literal definitions, they are not interchangeable when used in describing a person. Calling someone a weenie has a completely different connotation than calling someone a prick, for example. And, inexplicably, calling someone a cock has no meaning whatsoever.)

So that's enough about the word "dork." Perhaps more interesting are the words "geek" and "nerd."

"Geek" is a fairly old word, by which I mean it was in use long before I was born, although its current definition may be relatively new. "Nerd," on the other hand, is a fairly recent addition to the English language. I think it was first used sometime in the '70s. As a matter of fact, I remember seeing a poster back then of a stereotypical nerd in which all the elements of nerd attire (such as off-brand running shoes, pocket protector, food-stained shirt, and broken horn-rimmed glasses repaired with tape) were identified and labeled. It wasn't a particularly funny poster but what I remember about it is that rather than spelling the word N-E-R-D as we do today, it was spelled N-U-R-D, indicating that the word was so new back then that a standard spelling for it hadn't even been agreed upon yet.

For the longest time, "nerd" and "geek" were synonymous, and it was considered an insult to be called either of them. But then, sometime in the early '00s, "geek" became somewhat less pejorative. People started referring to themselves as geeks to indicate a certain level of expertise or interest in a particular field. It wasn't uncommon to hear people identify themselves as computer geeks or art geeks or movie geeks, for example. I even knew a stockbroker at the time who referred to some of the people in his offices as geeks, the implication being that they studied the market very closely and examined the financial details of certain companies in much greater detail than a lot of other stockbrokers. At the same time, "nerd" was still considered an insult and no one would even think of applying that label to himself.

However, all that has apparently changed recently. I have heard from two independent sources that "nerd" has lost most, if not all, of its negative connotations and today "geek" is considered the more pejorative term. I doubt if there's any sociolinguistic explanation for this shift -- it can probably be attributed to nothing more complicated than the fickle habits of the English-speaking public. Nonetheless, I think it's sort of fascinating.

But then, it's exactly the sort of thing I would be fascinated by, because I'm what you might call a word geek. Or maybe now you'd call me a word nerd, just to keep up with current definitions. I, however, would never call myself a word nerd because I don't like the way it sounds. The rhyme is unfortunate because it makes the term a little too cute, and what's needed here is not a term with cuteness but a term with dignity and respectability. It's no big deal, though, because, as I said before, I'm not going to call myself a word nerd. And in case you're wondering, I'm not going to call myself a word geek either.