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It’s all nerd to me

I scored nine ten ((I had somehow forgotten that I do actually own a sword.)) on the Geek Social Aptitude Test (via Brainiac), which is somehow both a relief and a disappointment. I didn’t know until I just looked it up, by the way, that “geek” was originally American circus slang for “sideshow freak”.

Meanwhile, is there any distinction left these days between “geek” and “nerd”? I had the impression that “nerd” used to be pejorative but was then reclaimed, as are so many negative terms for groups, by the very people at whom it was directed.

What’s your GSAT score, readers?

  1. 1  Matt McG  February 6, 2009, 6:00 pm 

    If you’ve not read it , run [don’t walk], to your nearest book shop and buy a copy of Geek Love.

  2. 2  Gregor  February 6, 2009, 6:14 pm 

    Remarkably a 6 which essentially invalidates the entire thing.

    For example, I wanted to punch the computer for the Star Trek/ Star Wars question. Every real nerd knows its like saying ‘I assume you love reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky’.

    Star wars: utter pox. Some badly glued airfix models for the ‘spaceships’, flabby, repetitive plots, lines like ‘You just can’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me go’ (full marks to Harrison Ford: ‘you can type this shit George, but you can’t say it’), an infantile fairy tale. Darth Vader was the only good thing about the show. And he was defeated. Anyway, even the die hard fans of the original films (the eejits who ducked when they saw the plastic triangle) think the prequels were rubbish.

    Now let’s look at Star Trek, original Star-Trek that is, by contrast. For me the center-piece of this work of genius was Leonard Nimoy’s towering performance as a Mediterranean type loner in a WASP environment. Often torn between reason and emotion, I thought it was a remarkable portrayal of being bi-cultural.

    Then there were the imaginative scripts which were less based on special effects than on ideas of freewill versus fate and a contrast between spiritual and physical fulfillment. There was also a finely drawn social comedy between the characters. In all I reject any equivalence between the two.

    Incidentally, has anyone seen the ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ episode? It wasn’t the best, but it’s fascinating for having a Richard Dawkins lookalike as a sneering arrogant git in charge of a small planet.

  3. 3  richard  February 6, 2009, 6:31 pm 

    so how big is your porn hard drive?

  4. 4  richard  February 6, 2009, 6:52 pm 

    just trying to follow your thought process here: pickled punks?

    “Geek” seems reclaimed, like “nerd.” I cannot for the life of me now track down the pejorative term for the paying public, that goes to see the freaks and geeks at the sideshow, but it’s another reasonably common term these days (and not “punters”).

  5. 5  Edmund  February 6, 2009, 8:06 pm 

    I vaguely remember an X-files episode in which a “geek” was defined as someone who bit the head off a chicken.

    [I scored seven]

  6. 6  Dave Weeden  February 6, 2009, 9:41 pm 

    I scored three, which is incredible since one of those was question 30 and my cat’s named after Leonard Nimoy.

    Actually, my dad (a Guardian-reading computer programmer when Fortran was cool and memory was scarce) objected to Star Trek on the grounds Gregor gave above. Of course, Shatner wasn’t a WASP (he’s a Canadian Jew). Whatever Star Trek was about (and I sometimes can’t get past my dad saying “Whizz” when the ship appears on the opening credits), it wasn’t about that. Mostly it was Kirk getting his shirt off and then beaten up.

  7. 7  WIIIAI  February 6, 2009, 10:00 pm 

    Edmund is right about the original definition of geek. Not sure how it migrated. Nerd was coined by Dr. Seuss.


  8. 8  roger migently  February 6, 2009, 10:39 pm 

    Gregor, it doesn’t matter how much you go on, you can’t score more than a single point for Q22 now matter how much you go on. Afraid you’re just not, you know, the geek you imagined you were….

    I’d love to know what everyone thinks Steven scored his 9 points for. Definitely for Q24. Q39 obviously. Q31 doesn’t really count because it’s part of the job. Probably should get a bonus point for knowing what “lulz” means without looking it up in wiktionary. But by what unconventional means does Steven ingest his coffee?

  9. 9  Adam  February 6, 2009, 10:50 pm 

    Geek was actually originally a verb. To ‘geek’ something meant to eat or swallow something disgusting. The artist Joe Coleman used to do a performance art thing which involved geeking live rodents, and got in trouble with the authorities as a result.

  10. 10  Steven  February 7, 2009, 12:02 am 

    I’d love to know what everyone thinks Steven scored his 9 points for.

    I’ll fess up if anyone correctly guesses all nine.

  11. 11  Leinad  February 7, 2009, 1:40 am 

    I’ll start:

    9. I have made a member of the opposite sex sit and watch me play video games for an hour or more.

    13. I live or have lived for an extended period completely nocturnally, sitting at my computer all night and sleeping all day.

    17. I generally am only friends with other Apple people/Windows people.

    29. I make my own image macros.

    31. I have corrected someone’s spelling or grammar on a message board or in blog comments.

    34. I’ve read all of the greatest novels ever published, all of which happen to be graphic novels.

    39. I regularly ingest caffeine through unconventional means.

    42. I always have the last word in online arguments. Always.

    49. I read Gizmodo more than the New York Times.

    Any good?

  12. 12  sw  February 7, 2009, 1:58 am 

    I scored a three – and that was stretching it.

    @8 and @10, I’d say Steve answered yes to 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 13, 27, 31, and 39.

    I defaulted on ‘7’ because I think it is patently true – “I commonly use very specific technical jargon without considering whether or not the person I’m talking to understands it.” – of anybody, and the question should properly be phrased, “I commonly use very specific technical jargon without considering whether or not the person I’m talking to understands it, with the secret hope that he or she does not, and will know that I know, and will know that I not only do not care but am enjoying this shared understanding that there is one person who understands and one who does not, and I, for once in my life, am on the better informed, somehow superior side, however pathetically brief this will be.”

    Personally, Gregor @2, I think that you are falling into the ultimate ethical-ontological trap of acquiescing to a seemingly-forced choice, essentially a whole generation’s Sophie’s Choice, not dissimilar to being forced to choose between Watchmen and Arkham Asylum, or between Heidegger and Levinas. Why not join me, Gregor? Free your mind! Allow yourself the freedom, the radical decision not to choose, and join me as one of the ambiStarred.

  13. 13  Tom  February 7, 2009, 5:17 am 

    I got a four and some of those were, “well, shit, I suppose I MUST have done that sometime, right?”

    The arbitrary distinction I make between the terms is that a geek is someone who has that very obsessive, knowledge-reverent, focused kind of mind and they indulge this (often but not always to the detriment of their social prowess/physical hygeine etc); whereas a nerd is someone who buys into this slightly icky “nerd culture” thing that has grown up on the Internet and seems to be vaguely Libertarian in a noncommittal kind of way and likes to think of itself as post-humanist without the understanding of human nature required to get to that point and will actually say things like “lol” or “epic fail” or “I think the Open Source Boob Project is pretty cool” in public then get all aggrieved when people groan.

    The above, in short, possibly: Steven Poole may be a geek, whereas Cory Doctorow is definitely a nerd.

  14. 14  Leinad  February 7, 2009, 10:19 am 

    My useless contribution (9, btw) to the geek/nerd debate follows:

    Nerd: no, or virtually no social skills, focussed entirely on their chosen discipline(s), couldn’t have a conversation at any length that didn’t revolve around them.

    Geek: not specialists, may like gadgets a lot, or anime or computer games – sociable, cofraternises over LANs, at cons, etc, may dress up as anime character, can have conversations about more stuff than nerds but will dissolve into quotes and catchphrases when panicked.

  15. 15  Gregor  February 7, 2009, 10:51 am 

    ‘join me as one of the ambiStarred’

    I think not. My earliest memory, after my brother pushing me down a flight of cement steps, is of having my intelligence insulted by Yoda. He’s like an uglier (though more tastefully dressed) Benny Hinn. I wouldn’t trust a word of his gobbledegook. Compare his faith-healer warbling to the Polybian wisdom of Spock.

    Furthermore, I NEVER believed in the Starwars monsters. I needed my illuminated globe on in my room for a fortnight after seeing the rubbery terror in ‘The Curse of Fenric’, but the Starwars pigmen just made me laugh. I’m afraid this is the closest I’ll get to appreciating Starwars:

    ‘Shatner wasn’t a WASP (he’s a Canadian Jew)’

    I didn’t know that because I’ve never read ‘Up Till Now’, uhhem. Still, it doesn’t invalidate my hypothesis. After all, ‘Plato’s Stepchildren’ was most controversial at the time for having the first inter-racial kiss. I’d have thought it would be criticised for referencing Plato whilst having bugger all to do with his ideas (except maybe the parable of Gyges), but that’s earthlings for you.

    Also they didn’t ask if you own a yellow jumper…(guilty, but it was bought for me)

    I don’t know about the nerd/ geek dichotomy. I’ve always thought a nerd would be more savoury than a geek, and a geek isn’t necessarily intellectual. A friend said that Frank Zappa looked geeky (which maybe unfair, even if we are his youngest fans), but I don’t think you could say Zappa was nerdy.

    ‘Nerd: no, or virtually no social skills, focussed entirely on their chosen discipline’

    My problem with this (as a Brit) is that could refer to about 90% of my male compatriots if football is a ‘chosen discipline’. Whether by tyranny of the majority or some other reason, sitting on your backside and watching grown men kick a ball around a field then talking about it for hours before and after is not regarded as nerdy.

  16. 16  Steven  February 7, 2009, 11:18 am 

    Leinad’s and sw’s guesses both score more than 0 and considerably less than 9 — but then one of them makes me realise that my score is actually ten!

    Isn’t “geek” more portable than “nerd”? I’ve seen people described as “policy geeks” or whatever, whereas nerd seems specifically computer/comics/Star oriented.

  17. 17  Gregor  February 7, 2009, 11:41 am 

    ‘Isn’t “geek” more portable than “nerd”? I’ve seen people described as “policy geeks” or whatever, whereas nerd seems specifically computer/comics/Star oriented.’

    Dunno, there’s always ‘the war nerd’: exiledonline’s superb writer on military issues. However, this title is probably chosen for euphony. Actually the main difference probably is phonetic.

  18. 18  Steven  February 7, 2009, 12:15 pm 

    OED informs me that “geek” originates as an alternate spelling of “geck”, meaning fool or dupe (from Low German gecken) .

    Twelfth Night, v i:

    Why haue you suffer’d me to be imprison’d …
    And made the most notorious gecke and gull
    That ere inuention plaid on?

    Cymbeline, v iv:

    To become the geeke and scorne o’ th’ other’s vilainy.

  19. 19  Alex  February 7, 2009, 1:05 pm 

    My definition:
    Both geeks and nerds are of course tremendously uncool and socially awkward (and both terms are used in self-description). The distinction is why. Nerds like uncool things – Star Trek, genre fiction, mathematics, computers in the days before everyone had one. Geeks obsess over cool things – music, mildly radical politics, underground culture, languages, photography, the internet now that girls use it – to the point where it becomes uncool. Nerds are damned instantly by the nature of their obsession, geeks eventually by the level.

    Obviously it’s a difficult line to draw, but there are some rules of thumb: I saw one that nerds might actually get rich off their obsession one day, though mine is that if you labour under the delusion that your obsession will some day get you laid, you’re a geek.

  20. 20  Tawfiq Chahboune  February 8, 2009, 1:23 am 

    Nine? I didn’t score one! I was thinking of pretending to be offended by the test just to get a score, but that would have been cheating.

    The only really good thing about Star Wars is, of course, the Emperor. The really terrible thing about it is that it saved what was then called Twentieth Century Fox from bankruptcy. Did Star Wars save Rupert Murdoch?

    The first and only true test of a geek is: does he (and it will be a he) subscribe to Linux magazines? A second test: is his nickname “spanner”? Test three for the British contingent: does he watch the Superbowl?

  21. 21  RobWeaver  February 8, 2009, 2:11 am 

    I’ve never been impressed by “the first interracial kiss” thing. Kirk and Uhura are forced to kiss by telekinesis! Now, if those Roman-style aliens had forced Kirk to kiss McCoy…

    Incidentally I scored zero, although if I fudged the answers I could manage to scrape up a three…

    About a week ago, I was reading this 1996 interview with Benedict Andrson and was struck by the comment that, at the time, “nerd” had lost most of its insulting aspect and so had been replaced with “geek” as a pejorative term. Now it seems that the same change has happened to “geek”. So what do we call geeks and nerds these days when we want to be insulting?


  22. 22  Martin Wisse  February 9, 2009, 2:43 pm 

    I had the impression that “nerd” used to be pejorative

    That certainly was my impression a decade and a half ago; these days it seems in the States it’s geek that’s the pejorative term.

  23. 23  Tom  February 9, 2009, 5:59 pm 

    “So what do we call geeks and nerds these days when we want to be insulting?


    Beautiful. “Libertarians” works also.

  24. 24  Gregor  February 9, 2009, 7:59 pm 

    “So what do we call geeks and nerds these days when we want to be insulting?


    Beautiful. “Libertarians” works also.’

    Hmmm. ‘Libertarian’ seems to have become unspeak for ‘tax bore’. Still, I do have a soft spot for real libertarians like Jesse ‘Captain Freedom’ Ventura:
    (and isn’t ‘ravenhawk’ a really formidable raptor)

    Frank Zappa:

    Justin Raimondo:

    He. Reads. Long. Books. Don’t know if that’s very fashionable with modern political columnists. Unless they are like Nick Cohen and drawn to the ‘bracing and stylish’ penmanship of Jonah Goldberg*.

    That isn’t to deny that real libertarians ARE tax bores, but rather that they leaven it with genuine (and often unpopular) criticism of right wing state intervention. And they don’t feel happy about people who support state torture, state killing, the PATRIOT Act and vast state spending, courtesy of George Walker Bush, appropriating their title. No, I don’t agree with them that selfishness will ever be a virtue. But do you really prefer Garton Ash and John Rentoul?

    Funnily enough, I seem to remember Christopher Hitchens trying to nose his way into Libertarianism. Which is quite amusing really, given that he’s one of the few people to have praised the state inflicted violence of both Vladimir Lenin and George Bush.

    *Steven, as you are a Guardian book reviewer, please tell me that Nick’s going to get the bum’s rush for that one. Not because it’s ‘right wing’, but because Goldberg is a known idiot and piss-poor stylist. What next? Nick Cohen is bowled over by Richard Littlejohn’s Proustian masterpiece, ‘To Hell in a Handcart’”?

  25. 25  Steven  February 9, 2009, 8:10 pm 

    Steven, as you are a Guardian book reviewer, please tell me that Nick’s going to get the bum’s rush for that one.

    I have no knowledge of internal editorial politics at the Observer, which is where Cohen’s review ran.

    In general, though, it does look as though the specialized book reviewer is becoming something of an endangered species.

  26. 26  Tawfiq Chahboune  February 9, 2009, 9:54 pm 

    Originally associated with the Left, it is unfortunate that the term “libertarian” is now associated with the Right and more often than not tax fanatics of almost every description.

    Nick Cohen’s review was extremely odd, to say the least. He got so tangled up and, strangely enough, some how ended up accepting Goldberg’s weird thesis and thereby categorising his own liberal politics as motivated by fascist ideas! If anyone’s interested, I was so perplexed by his review that I wrote about it here:

  27. 27  Karl  February 10, 2009, 1:34 am 


    12. I have a medical problem that makes me sweat a lot.
    13. I live or have lived for an extended period completely nocturnally, sitting at my computer all night and sleeping all day.
    14. I generally do not leave my home if it’s not necessary for work or food retrieval.

    Apart from these points and point 50 nothing applies to myself and point 12 is only valid because I drink too much coffee and nothing to do with any medical problem.

    Secondly, Cohen is someone who projects his own pyschopathology on to others that he sees as always demonic and sinister. That’s the legacy of being a Trot.

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