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Embrace your geekness

Today is ‘Embrace your geekness’ day. In this article we look at the word ‘geek’, pit the geeks against the nerds, and geek out over the Oxford English Corpus – the language analysis tool used by Oxford’s dictionary-makers.

The Oxford Dictionaries blog has looked at the word geek before. Of course it has: we openly admit to being word geeks here at Oxford Dictionaries, after all.

To recap: geek has seen a transformation in meaning over the last couple of decades. Formerly a cruel label attached to clever but socially awkward people, geeks got their due reward in the 1990s, when the computer industry helped many geeks to achieve great success, and the wider perception of geeks began to shift. Being a geek became a positive thing, suggesting an admirable level of knowledge, expertise, and passion: geeks could do ‘cool stuff’. Our language research shows that it’s now common for people to be self-proclaimed or self-confessed geeks, with geekiness no longer confined to the world of science and technology.

Read about the origins of ‘geek’ and find out more about its transformation

Geeks vs nerds: let (civilized, bloodless, virtual) battle commence

If you think ‘geek’ is completely interchangeable with ‘nerd’, you probably don’t spend enough time on the Internet, or you haven’t got a good dictionary. Oxford’s computational language analysis shows that the two words are used in some similar contexts, but that they have different collocates (that is, words that regularly appear next to a specific word). Our lexicographers use the Oxford English Corpus to analyse the English language. Software produces tables showing which words are used most frequently with another given word. These word sketches are then analysed to inform Oxford dictionary definitions and to keep track of language change. (There are few things more uber-geeky than computational language analysis…)

I asked our lexicographers to show me data pitting ‘geek’ against ‘nerd’ in the Corpus. From this I learnt that:

  • ‘Nerd’ frequently appears with the adjectives bumbling, bookish, scrawny, and crotchety, while these descriptions aren’t used in relation to geeks.
  • Nerds are also more frequently bespectacled and mild-mannered than geeks – although there are a fair share of bespectacled and mild-mannered geeks too (in the Corpus, we see one bespectacled geek for every two bespectacled nerds, if you’re interested).
  • Geeks are more likely to be ‘self-confessed’ and ‘self-respecting’, with more than double the number of ‘geek’ instances paired up with these phrases.
  • ‘Computer’ is by far the most common modifier used alongside both ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’, with nearly 600 instances of ‘computer geek’ in the Corpus, compared with 280 instances of ‘computer nerd’. The more technological bent of the geek can be seen in the other collocates that frequently describe them: techno, gadget, and tech (see the simplified table below: it compares the number of instances of these word pairings in the Corpus).
Modifiers of. . . geek nerd
computer

598

280

sci-fi

56

18

comic

74

22

techno

25

6

gadget

36

8

tech

58

12

comic-book

10

0

uber

11

0

alpha

52

0

The other significant collocates that occur next to geek (but not nerd) are the references to sci-fi and comic books. This fits well with the Oxford Dictionaries definition for geek as ‘a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast’. To my mind, this cartoon explains the difference rather well:

I’ve also seen a handy Venn diagram that visualises the similarities and differences between geeks, nerds, and dweebs.

Above I’ve looked at modifiers frequently used to describe geeks and nerds – but what about these words’ use as modifiers themselves? Looking at the data, ‘geek’ is most frequently used to modify chic (close to 50 instances in the Corpus) – while ‘nerd chic’ doesn’t get a mention. ‘Geek goddess’ is another typical construction, which appeals to my word-geekiness on so many levels.

Find out about the Oxford English Corpus and (for uber-geeks only) watch a video demonstration of Corpus analysis.

More word geekery. . .

Since its rise, ‘geek’ has spawned a number of related terms. Already in our dictionaries can be found:

alpha geek – a person who has great expertise in computing and related technology

geekery – obsessive interest in or enthusiasm for a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest

geekspeak – technical jargon regarded as characteristic of that used by computer enthusiasts.

These distinct terms are included in addition to geek-derivative nouns (geekdom and geekiness), adjectives (geeky, geekier, and geekiest, as well as geekish), and the phrasal verb geek out – we define this as either ‘engage in or discuss computer-related tasks obsessively or with great attention to technical detail’, or in a more general sense to ‘be or become extremely excited or enthusiastic about a subject, typically one of specialist or minority interest’.

There are sure to be many more geek-tastic terms popping up on the interwebs and being assessed by our lexicographers for inclusion in our dictionaries – watch this space.

Read about new coinages currently on our watchlist.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.