Dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds

Yesterday a colleague informed us that it was National Be a Dork Day. I pondered that no-one seems to have reclaimed dork in the same way that some people have reclaimed various other terms, including geek and nerd. Then as made my mid-morning cup of coffee I scrolled through Facebook and one friend recounted a minor mishap before concluding “I’m such a dork”. 

Because of the nature of these words, there are no universally agreed definitions of dork, geek and nerd, to which I also need to add dweeb (which is not word I would naturally use).

Merriam-Webster defines them as:

informal: an odd, socially awkward, unstylish person
slang: an unattractive, insignificant, or inept person
1: a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked
2: an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity
computer geek
3: a carnival performer often billed as a wild man whose act usually includes biting the head off a live chicken or snake
1: a person devoted to intellectual, academic, or technical pursuits or interests
also : a person preoccupied with or devoted to a particular activity or field of interest
2: an unstylish or socially awkward person

It includes a usage note:

Dork, when used to refer to a socially awkward or inept person, is a relatively recent word: our records indicate that it first appeared in writing in the 1960s. Two of its synonyms in this sense are likewise of fairly recent vintage. Nerd (typically used of a studious species of dork) dates from the 1950s; it was coined by Dr. Seuss in his 1950 book If I Ran the Zoo, although not in the sense that we use today. The usage of nerd is now often used in a neutral fashion to denote enthusiasm or expertise (theater nerd) or proudly as a self-identifying trait (word nerd). Geek became synonymous with nerd in the 1950s and has similarly seen increasing use with positive connotations, showing membership in a specialized group (film geek, beer geek) rather than social awkwardness. In its earliest meanings, geek referred to, among other things, a carnival performer who would bite the head off a live chicken, or other small animal, as part of an act.

A lot depends on whether each word is used by someone about someone else (possibly negatively) or about themselves (possibly positively). 

Various sources on the internet explain dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds in a Venn diagram of intelligence, social ineptitude and obsession, with dweebs being intelligent and socially inept, dorks being socially inept and obsessive, geeks being obsessive and intelligent, and nerds being all three. I’m not convinced. Others add emotional instability as a fourth measure. A possible fifth measure is social interaction (where, when, how and how much one inflicts one’s intelligence, social ineptitude, obsession and/or emotional instability on others ) (or maybe that’s a subset of social ineptitude). Other others add freaks, weirdos and stalkers (socially inept and obsessive (towards others), but then so are dorks, but not all dorks are stalkers and vice versa). M-W gives also gives bookworm, dink [slang], grind, swot [British], weenie and wonk. Of those, bookworm is probably the only one I would naturally use.

I don’t identify as any of these labels, but I have occasionally referred to photos of me looking awkward as dorky.

PS I got wondering what the most common collocations of NOUN + (these words) are. Google Ngrams reports:

cork, school, class, word, town, county, jeunesse, New and bronze dork
school, computer and class dweeb
computer, science, tech, band, technology, math, techno, beer, school and film geek
computer, science, book, math, history, school, tech, word, class and Brai nerd

Some of these raise more questions than they answer.

PPS M-W defines dork in part as ‘unstylish’. I wondered if my friend would describe herself that way and she said in response to something else ” I have described my clothing style as a 3 year old who was allowed to dress herself”.


2 thoughts on “Dorks, dweebs, geeks and nerds

    • Thanks for your comment. If anything, I would see dorks as *unfocused* – that most (but not all) of what they do is by accident. My friend started her post by saying that she’d tripped up a stair.


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