The differences between a geek and a nerd

Posted to Statistics  |  Tags: , ,  |  Nathan Yau

Curious about how people use “geek” and “nerd” to describe themselves and if there was any difference between the two terms, Burr Settles analyzed words used in tweets that contained the two. Settles used pointwise mutual information (PMI), which essentially provided a measure of the geekness or nerdiness of a term. The plot above shows the results.

In broad strokes, it seems to me that geeky words are more about stuff (e.g., “#stuff”), while nerdy words are more about ideas (e.g., “hypothesis”). Geeks are fans, and fans collect stuff; nerds are practitioners, and practitioners play with ideas. Of course, geeks can collect ideas and nerds play with stuff, too. Plus, they aren’t two distinct personalities as much as different aspects of personality. Generally, the data seem to affirm my thinking.

Or maybe pop culture (geek) versus education (nerd).


  • Hmm… Looks like I’m an outlier in this data set.
    I’m a practitioner/academic/idea-person… yet I think of myself as a “data geek” not a “data nerd.”

    Still… nice chart!

    • Possibly because there’s still a greater stigma attached to being a nerd than being a geek.

  • Personally, I’ve always preferred “geek” to “nerd”, and I’m definitely an idea man, not a gadget man.

    My rule of thumb for distinguishing between geeks and nerds is that the defining characteristic of a geek is enthusiasm, whereas the defining characteristic of a nerd is pedantry. Or, to put it another way, geeks obsess while nerds profess.

  • Oh. Well, I’ve always thought of myself as a nerd, even though I obsess. I don’t like the word “geek” because it also means the circus freak who eats anything (like biting through the necks of live chickens). To me, that definition always plays in my head when I hear the word, and it give it connotations I suppose other people don’t think about.

    • According to the dictionary, perhaps, but it seems like an odd concern since that’s not what the word means to any people who, you know, actually speak English. Dictionaries are useful but are not authoritative. The spoken language is.

  • Weaton? As in Joss Whedon? Does this graph imply a lot of “geeky” “fans” out there misspelling the man’s name? Or perhaps just one mention of that spelling in otherwise associated terms?

  • It’s interesting just how dramatically having coloured the words can skew the way the graph is interpreted. We *don’t* have an abrupt dichotomy between the usage of ‘geek’ and the usage of ‘nerd’. The points are just displayed in a different colour depending whether their nerd score is higher than their geek score or not. But the terms cluster around a line that looks pretty much one-to-one. Take, for example, ‘gamer’ near the top right; ‘gamer’ is both very nerdy and very geeky.
    If we were to display the same words, but coloured on a continuous scale from red (much more nerdy than geeky) to yellow (much more geeky than nerdy) then most of the graph would be orange (both!).

    That means that common usage often *doesn’t* distinguish very much between ‘nerd’ and ‘geek’.

    And the next interesting thing to look at is the words that *are* far from that midline. On the ‘nerd’ side – sciences and maths, generally – but also the stuff that is very nerdy without being geeky, seems like stuff that’s going to appear much less often in tweets. By contrast, the limited collection of stuff that is geeky without being nerdy, looks like terms that would crop up in a greater number of tweets – unfortunately we don’t *actually* have a third dimension displayed here (the usual would be larger font for more common terms.)

    I conclude that geeks and nerds are closely related :-) and many people don’t draw a distinction.

  • I’m all over the place! Nerd by training, geek by pop culture preferences.

  • Adam Bradley June 18, 2013 at 6:51 am

    Someone at LibraryThing did this a few years ago with their data:

  • Granted location of #ipod and #linux, and mutual location relationshsip among others… Guys, your geek is actually hipster. Since when apple and other _consumer_ stuff became a symbol of knowledge, wisdom, etc? This graph is ill wrong…


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