Tag Archives: dweeb


We were milling around before the official start of the monthly Words, Wines, and Whatever tasting at the Domus Logogustationis, warming up our palates with start-up glasses of wine and some conversation. Arlene was talking about a recent conference she had been to.

“So there was this word challenge thing,” Arlene said, “and one of the challenges was that there are only three words in the English language that start with dw, and all of them are common words.”

I cocked my head slightly and raised an eyebrow. “Three?”

Daryl pulled out his iPad. Arlene darted a hand to block it. “No cheating.”

“There must be more than three,” I said. “Let’s see…”

“No,” Arlene said, “let iPad Boy here see if he can cough them up straight out of his cortex without an index.”

Darryl pulled a little face. “Um. Dwell. Uh, personal names should count – Dwight, Dwayne… Oh, dwindle. And dwarf. Which is actually a noun and a verb, so you can count that twice. We’re already over three that way. And dwelling! The noun means something not exactly the same as the gerund of the verb. I think that’s a pretty comprehensive confutation of the contention.” He smiled.

“Dweeb,” Arlene said.

“I don’t think you’re being fair,” Daryl said. “Geek, sure, nerd, maybe, but I’m not a dweeb.”

“You’re not exhaustive, either,” Arlene said. “You missed dweeb.”

Daryl facepalmed.

Arlene smiled. “I got them all and then I tweeted it.” She took a sip of her wine. “Sweet.”

“No need to gloat,” Daryl said, and turned his attention to his own glass.

“No, this wine is sweet,” Arlene said.

“Kabinett,” I said. “Riesling.” I mused aloud: “Sweet – tweet – dweeb…

“It doesn’t really have that much in common with the other dw words, does it?” Arlene said. “More with some other words that have that vowel.”

Daryl had his iPad in action now. “First OED cite is 1982. Which sounds rightish to me. …Probaby comes from feeb, for feeble, with that dw added at the beginning. Maybe from dwarf.”

“I bet there are some phonaesthetics at work there,” I said. “We know that those high front vowels tend to be associated with lighter, smaller, less substantial things. Compare dweeb with what it would be if it were, say, dwab.”

“Sounds like twat,” Daryl said. “And a twat is more obnoxious and less ineffectual than a dweeb.”

“I think the rounded glide into it adds contrast,” I added. “Compare deeb. Think about how we talk about a tweet rather than a teet.”

“Will you stop with the female body parts,” Arlene said.

“No, not – oh, never mind,” I said. “Anyway, what other words do we get a taste of in dweeb?”

“Well, twee,” Arlene said. “And wee.”

“And maybe queen and queer,” Daryl said.

Oui,” I affirmed. “It’s a little farther afield to squeal, but then there are those toys, Weebles. And weenie.”

Arlene wagged her finger: “Body parts!” I rolled my eyes.

Weed,” Daryl said. “And Guido.”

“Ooh! Guido!” Arlene said. “Is a Guido a dweeb? They’re kind of different, aren’t they?”

“A dweeb is like a nerd or a geek,” Daryl said, “but with excessive self-estimation, combined with a neediness and overearnestness.”

“Overweening,” I said. “Sort of like a twerp. Which is also a very similar word.”

“Ah, yes,” said Arlene. “I’ll have to tell my tweeps.”

“But, by the way,” Daryl said, scrolling on his iPad, “there are some other dw words that aren’t so common: dwale, ‘deadly nightshade’; dwalm, ‘swoon’; dwang, ‘a short piece of reinforcing timber’; dwerg, a pseudo-archaic form of ‘dwarf’; dwile, ‘floor-cloth’; dwine, ‘waste away’; and a bunch of obsolete ones.”

“And dwapp,” Arlene said.

Dwapp?” said Daryl. “That’s not in the OED.”

“As in Tony Orloongoo and Dwapp, a fake African music duo from a Don Martin comic strip in MAD Magazine?” I said.

“As in dwapp!” Arlene said, backhanding Daryl lightly on the side of the head. She turned to me and backhanded me as well. “Dwapp!”

“I think I shall dwalm,” Daryl said. “And dwine.”

“And whine quite a lot,” Arlene said. Then, with a smirk, she said, “Don’t dwell on it… dweeb.” She tossed back her glass, turned, and went to refill it.

nerd, geek

Dear word sommelier: When should I call someone a nerd, and when should I call someone a geek?

I ought to be a reasonable authority on this, since I’ve been something of a nerd and a geek for pretty much my whole life, although in recent years I’ve become socially adept enough, and learned to dress myself well enough, that my status has occasionally seemed questionable. But my wife still calls me a “sexy geek” and many of my readers call me a “word nerd,” so I guess I still meet the criteria.

But what are those criteria? They’ve shifted during the course of my life. When I was in high school in the early ’80s, geek was really a rather insulting term – I tended to think of some skinny person who couldn’t dress himself properly and had no social skills, or at least no non-repugnant ones.

I do think the phonaesthetics of the word, including the articulatory gesture it involves (mouth spread wide as though you’re trying to swallow something unpleasant and slimy, and the tongue’s double-touch at the back of the mouth reinforces that), had some influence on my sense of it. It was also commonly bruited about that the term originally referred to someone who bit the heads off live chickens. (The correct term for that is actually Alice Cooper Ozzy Osbourne. Oh, sorry, that was a bat.) In fact, geek was used as a name for sideshow freaks of various sorts, especially those who ate nasty things; its origins seem to be a Low German word for “fool”, via Scots English. Somehow it came to be transferred to what Brits call swots and anoraks. But with the rise of computers as a major social tool and necessity, those kids you used to insult have turned out to be very valuable: the ones who are immoderately interested and expert in things that most people find flummoxing and perhaps a bit distasteful. It’s sort of revenge of the geeks.

Wait! The movie is Revenge of the Nerds! So why is it that we tend to use geek more than nerd for these kinds of people now? When I was in school, nerd was what you called the smart kids who weren’t smooth socially but were well-intentioned and knew all sorts of stuff that everyone else would never know. Nerds dressed for function, not looks – pocket protectors, tape on the glasses – and were fascinated with things that made other people’s eyes glaze over. And you know what? I still think of nerds that way. Nor am I the only one. I think of the YouTube videos by NurdRage (yes, a different spelling), in which various chemical and other physical stunts are shown – cool lab stuff. Cool, that is, if you like to see, for instance, how you can make flowers glow in the dark, or use a chemical reaction to cause gallium to beat like a (small and fast) heart.

Nerd is a 20th-century term, possibly coming from nert, a slangy variant on nut. It’s a softer word, with a nasal sound characteristic of many a nerd’s speech; it stays near the tip of the tongue but uses that syllabic /r/ for its peak, which may seem intense or ineffectual. It seems suitable for something ineffectual and without sharp edges. A possible prime vector for the word is Dr. Seuss’s book If I Ran the Zoo, in which a nerd is a kind of exotic critter. Which, come to think of it, nerds still are, sorta. (Nerds are also a kind of candy: tangy, crunchy sugar nubs sold under the Willy Wonka brand. Could you imagine a candy called Geeks? Me neither.)

Why, then, has geek taken over? It seems that nerd has retained the sense of “an intellectually inclined person without social skills” and geek has kept the sense of “someone who has an abnormal amount of knowledge and interest in a certain topic” – as tvtropes.org points out, “There can be such a thing as a Fashion Geek, someone who knows a lot about fashion and is pretty obsessed with it. A Fashion Nerd, in contrast, would be completely unaware that stripes and plaids are unmix-y, and wouldn’t care, even if you told them why the two don’t mix.”

I would add that, while sexy nerd remains something of an oxymoron, the collocation sexy geek is reasonably current – Wired magazine has even had a “Sexiest Geek” contest, and you can see a buxom devochka discourse on geek and call herself a sexy geek at www.youtube.com/watch?v=a9jlefnXKyQ. As she points out, intelligence has become very popular, and that has caused geek’s stock to rise somewhat.

But I find that the distinction is not altogether clear cut. In some cases the sound matters – for instance, where word geek might seem natural, rhyme helps word nerd to prevail. Often, though, personal proclivity comes into it. Of course, not everyone cares that much; if you have strong opinions on the difference very much, then, as the great nerd (or is it geek) comic strip xkcd diagrams, you are a nerd, a geek, or both: xkcd.com/747/.

But speaking of Venn diagrams (since you’re a geek, a nerd, or both, you know that intersecting-circle diagrams are Venn diagrams), there is one currently making the rounds that purports to set the matter straight on the difference between not just nerd and geek but also dork and dweeb: www.buzzfeed.com/scott/nerd-venn-diagram. It’s not bad, but I don’t find that everyone sees it exactly that way. I polled editors and people on Twitter and got a mixture of responses, among which were the following distinctions:

– nerds are less intelligent than geeks
– nerds are much bigger losers
– on Big Bang Theory (wondering how long it would take for me to mention it?), Leonard is a geek but not a nerd, while Sheldon is both
– nerds are antisocial, while geeks are just not socially focused
– nerds have no friends, while geeks have people seeking their advice
– nerds use pocket protectors; geeks don’t
– geeks are cool
– nerds swim against the pop culture grain; geeks are more tech-focused
– nerd = geek squared
– a geek has a useful skill

I just asked my wife if I was a geek; she said “Of course.” I asked her if I was a nerd. She demurred. I asked what the difference was. She had to think. “Well… they’re both genius… geek seems to be more… suave?”

So, in the current linguistic climate – though this may well change – although the terms have a certain amount of overlap, and although you have to allow for factors such as rhyme, generally geek is applied more broadly and with a certain amount of approbation, rather like wonk, while nerd has a greater connotation of social ineptitude or some kind of cluelessness. Among the crowd watching planes take off and land, a geek would be more like an aviation photographer, a nerd more like a planespotter. Trainspotters and other anoraks are no longer geeks; they’re not cool enough. Oh, but what about gongoozlers? A class of their own, I think.