Geek vs. Nerd vs. Dork: What's the Difference?

The Dilemma: You're proud to be all three of these supposed insults! But you're wondering if one captures your brilliant essence better than the others.

People You Can Impress:Well, not cool kids, certainly. Face it—we're never going to impress those jerks.

The Quick Trick: Etymologically, geek probably equals carny, nerd probably equals Seussian animal, and dork probably equals what you might have called President Nixon if you were his close friend.

The Explanation:
All three of these words are now used interchangeably to refer to someone who is undesirable due to a paucity of social skills and an excess of braininess. Fortunately, former middle-school punching bags have co-opted all three words, turning them from insults into badges of honor. But while the words have come to overlap in meaning, their etymologies couldn't be more different. So for all those of us who've suffered such verbal barbs—and what proud mental_floss reader hasn't?—here's what they were really saying about you.

GEEK

Etymological Theory 1: Sometime in the early 19th century, the Scottish word geck, meaning "fool," changed to geek and began being used to describe a certain kind of carnival performer. Geeks specialized in eating live animals, including biting the heads off live chickens.

Theory 2: Real etymology geeks trace the word geck all the way back to Shakespeare—see, for instance, "the most notorious geck" in Act V of Twelfth Night—and claim that we have the first great literature geek to blame for the word.

revenge-nerds.jpgNERD

Theory 1: The first known appearance of the word is in Dr. Seuss's 1950 If I Ran the Zoo, in which a character wants to collect "A Nerkle a Nerd and a Seersucker, too!" The theory goes that kids liked the ring of the word so much, they started using it derogatorily.

Theory 2: Some at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute claim that they coined the word knurd in the '50s to describe kids who studied all the time (knurd being drunk spelled backward).

DORK

This time, there's only one theory: The word dork originally meant "penis." (Specifically, human penis.) Popularized in the '60s, dork was probably derived from dirk, a penile name that was widely used until the short version of Richard became ubiquitous.

Old School Nerds
Before the words nerd and dork existed, there were still nerds and dorks. According to Dewdroppers, Waldos, and Slackers, a guide to 20th-century American slang, all these words have been used to describe the unpopular, undesirable, and generally square: wind sucker, dewdropper, Joe Zilch, dudd, pantywaist, oil can, stinkeroo, mullet, nose-bleed, roach, schnookle, kook, dimp, dorf, mince, squid, auger, and waldo.

This post was excerpted from the mental_floss book What's the Difference? For more columns like this, click here.

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Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 119th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF LISTENING

"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."

ON TRUST

"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."

ON DECIDING WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT

"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."

ON TRAVEL

"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."


Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN INTELLIGENCE AND HAPPINESS

"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."

ON TRUTH

"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."

ON THE DOWNSIDE OF PEOPLE

"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."

ON SUFFERING FOR YOUR ART

"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."

ON TAKING ACTION

"Never mistake motion for action."

ON GETTING WORDS OUT

"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."


Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON THE BENEFITS OF SLEEP

"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"

ON FINDING STRENGTH 

"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."

ON THE TRUE NATURE OF WICKEDNESS

"All things truly wicked start from innocence."

ON WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW

"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

ON THE DEFINITION OF COURAGE

"Courage is grace under pressure."

ON THE PAINFULNESS OF BEING FUNNY

"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."


By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

ON KEEPING PROMISES

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

ON GOOD VS. EVIL

"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."

ON REACHING FOR THE UNATTAINABLE

"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."

ON HAPPY ENDINGS

"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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