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

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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.

September 4, 2008 - 6:28am
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