Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries

Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers. It’s an interesting indication of how popular culture has evolved in the last quarter-century that the scope and boundaries of these terms are now of increasing interest to people who don’t think they belong in any of those categories — from language columnists for major newspapers to ordinary folks who have relatives they suspect might fall somewhere in the Venn diagram those terms define.

I’ve been watching these terms shift and move in and out of prominence since the early 1970s. Over time, distinctions among them that were once blurred have tended to sharpen. This is not happening at random; it accompanies the changes in “mainstream” culture that I noted in The Revenge of the Nerds is Living Well. As groups who were one marginalized erupt into mainstream visibility, everybody’s functional need for language that puts a handle on their social identities becomes more pressing.

Here’s a report on the state of play in early 2011, with some history intended to illuminate it.

One of the interesting things about being a participant-observer anthropologist, as I am, is that you often develop implicit knowledge that doesn’t become explicit until someone challenges you on it. The seed of this post was on a recent comment thread where I was challenged to specify the difference between a geek and a hacker. And I found that I knew the answer. Geeks are consumers of culture; hackers are producers.

Thus, one doesn’t expect a “gaming geek” or a “computer geek” or a “physics geek” to actually produce games or software or original physics – but a “computer hacker” is expected to produce software, or (less commonly) hardware customizations or homebrewing. I cannot attest to the use of the terms “gaming hacker” or “physics hacker”, but I am as certain as of what I had for breakfast that computer hackers would expect a person so labeled to originate games or physics rather than merely being a connoisseur of such things.

One thing that makes this distinction interesting is that it’s a recently-evolved one. When I first edited the Jargon File in 1990, “geek” was just beginning a long march towards respectability. It’s from a Germanic root meaning “fool” or “idiot” and for a long time was associated with the sort of carnival freak-show performer who bit the heads off chickens. Over the next ten years it became steadily more widely and positively self-applied by people with “non-mainstream” interests, especially those centered around computers or gaming or science fiction. From the self-application of ‘geek’ by those people it spread to elsewhere in science and engineering, and now even more widely; my wife the attorney and costume historian now uses the terms “law geek” and “costume geek” and is understood by her peers, but it would have been quite unlikely and a faux pas for her to have done that before the last few years.

Because I remembered the pre-1990 history, I resisted calling myself a ‘geek’ for a long time, but I stopped around 2005-2006 – after most other techies, but before it became a term my wife’s non-techie peers used politely. The sting has been drawn from the word. And it’s useful when I want to emphasize what I have in common with have in common with other geeks, rather than pointing at the more restricted category of “hacker”. All hackers are, almost by definition, geeks – but the reverse is not true.

The word “hacker”, of course, has long been something of a cultural football. Part of the rise of “geek” in the 1990s was probably due to hackers deciding they couldn’t fight journalistic corruption of the term to refer to computer criminals – crackers. But the tremendous growth and increase in prestige of the hacker culture since 1997, consequent on the success of the open-source movement, has given the hackers a stronger position from which to assert and reclaim that label from abuse than they had before. I track this from the reactions I get when I explain it to journalists – rather more positive, and much more willing to accept a hacker-lexicographer’s authority to pronounce on the matter, than in the early to mid-1990s when I was first doing that gig.

That shift is so marked that I think the most interesting issue about the hacker/cracker terminological boundary is no longer journalistic abuse. It’s about what label, and what social identity, belongs to people who use hackerly skills to ends that others may define as criminal or vandalistic, but which are considered virtuous by most people who are unambiguously hackers.

I approached this question in Was Stuxnet a work of hackers?. The most interesting boundary case, which I also discussed there, is people cracking open intrusive DRM methods such as DVD or HDCP encryption, or jailbreaking cellphones. Hackers or crackers? The ambiguity arises because hackers are hostile to technologies that deny users complete control of their own computers and purchased media; thus hackers consider breaking DRM methods a social good even if such is activity is itself illegal or associated with illegal behaviors.

The line is not always easy to draw, but in 1996 I summarized it as “Hackers build things. Crackers break things.” I think that distinction is still the generally-accepted one; so, for example, a hacker asked to categorize someone who breaks security on a system will begin by asking whether the security-breaker built his own tools or is merely mechanically applying tricks originated by others.

In 2010, the term “nerd” has the least definite semantic field of any of the four I have examined here. In times past it was roughly synonymous with “geek” (and more commonly used!), but the latter term has shifted and sharpened while the former has not. Perhaps it is a label-in-waiting, ready to attach itself to some subcultural efflorescence of the future.

69 thoughts on “Geeks, hackers, nerds, and crackers: on language boundaries

  1. I would say that “nerd” is a combination of a lack of traits (to wit, sociailzaion skills and usually physical ability) and a poorly defined “nerdy interest” – which would likely closely co-inside with traditional geeky interests (e.g. math, sciences, computers, sci-fi, music, technology).

    Whereas “geek” is more of a measure of the involvement of someone in a specific field of interest/study.

    Thus, as an obvious example, ESR – with his martial arts training and obvious lack of social awkwardness – can’t be classified as a “nerd”. Whereas some random person who composes bad poetry would be a nerd but in no way a geek.

  2. Interesting. Over the last couple of years I’ve been distancing myself from the word “geek” specifically *because* the mainstream has started to attach to it. When people start calling themselves geeks because they know how to right-click to bring up a context menu in Vista 7, it’s time for those of us with real techie cred to bail.

    Come on… “Geek Squad” ? You know the term’s dead at this point.

    I’m ok with calling myself a nerd just because the mainstream hasn’t co-opted the term yet. Of course, as a bona fide hobbyist open source developer I can legitimately lay claim to “hacker” as well, and wear the term proudly.

  3. Just to clarify the prior post – this was my attempt to gel the “nerd” understanding from point of view of contemporary society, NOT necessarily my own view.

  4. I cannot attest to the use of the terms “gaming hacker” or “physics hacker”, but I am as certain as of what I had for breakfast that computer hackers would expect a person so labeled to originate games or physics rather than merely being a connoisseur of such things.

    Of course the biggest problem with “Gaming Hacker” is that the gaming community co-opted the hacker = cracker meme, probably even before the mainstream media did.

    I wouldn’t pretend to be an expert, but i’d argue that the intent behind gaming hacker is closely summed up by the descriptor “indie developer”. Certainly an indie developer would be expected to develop games rather than just play them. As an added bonus, an argument exists(popular gaming critic Yahtzee, writer of Zero Punctuation specifically) that indie development is the source of the lions share of innovation in gaming with the regular studios pumping out clone after clone.

  5. For many years, I have owned (and worn proudly) a plain black t-shirt that adorned with a single word: ‘geek’. Obviously the word was popular enough for someone to produce a t-shirt (and presumably sell at a profit). I may even have bought it from http://ThinkGeek.com/ The shirt is worn, and the printing is faded, and I was contemplating replacing it. Now I’m not certain it’s worth it.

    I do know this — nerd and geek have always had distinct meanings for me, with geek having the higher status. If I had to point to the difference between the words, I would point to a pair of movies: Revenge of the Nerds (1984) and Real Genius (1985). RotN portrayed characters that embodied the term ‘nerd’, while RG, without actually saying the word, was filled with characters that defined the geek. Nerds want to fit in, but don’t; Geeks have more important things to worry about.

    As for “Geek Squad”? You won’t find a single true geek there, but you’ll probably find a lot of nerds.

  6. nerds can’t comb their hair, bathe, or interact with women…..hackers do stuff….geeks…I agree are consumers.

    There are obviously sub-categories of these, and they can overlap…I’m not sure there is an accurate descriptor for a socially adept, martially proficient, intelligent, tech savvy, builder of things.

  7. This is kind of interesting. It looks from the responses as though “geek” and “nerd” have moved in opposite directions, with “geek” retaining mainly the positive connotations of geek/nerd c. 1990 and “nerd” retaining mainly the negative ones.

  8. Hmmm…of course, there is overlap, probably significant overlap. Many (most?) hackers, for example, also sometimes do geek stuff, like gaming. When they can pulled away from their code, that is. After all, didn’t Ken Thompson pull that minicomputer out of the closet and write Unix so he could play a game?

  9. When anyone asks me what I do for a living, my first response is usually just ‘computer geek’. I can do so many things that actually telling people what I do would take far too long.

    I may or may not be a hacker. I do like making computers and gadgets do what I want, as my phone and Lego collections can testify to. I just haven’t had the time or inclination to do anything with them for a while.

    The only thing I have in common with nerds is that I haven’t known the intimate touch of a woman in 4 years.

  10. @Morgan: “After all, didn’t Ken Thompson pull that minicomputer out of the closet and write Unix so he could play a game?”

    So he could port a game he’d already written (on Multics), then, when BTL pulled out of the Multics project, he ported it to GECOS, which was too expensive to use ($75/game!), after which he moved it to a PDP-7. After the game was running, he then implemented a filesystem he’d been thinking about. About that point he had a rudimentary OS, which was later named UNICS, then UNIX.

    http://www.courses.fas.harvard.edu/~lib215/reference/history/spacetravel.html

  11. I imagine the use of “geek” you’ve referred to involves a certain degree of ironic self-deprecation. “Oh my god! Oh my god! I’m such a law geek!”

  12. I tend to think of “geek” as defined by the mastery of (or at least obsession with) some subject matter.

    A nerd, OTOH, is someone like Lisa Simpson who likes school and “enjoys learning” in the sense of liking to get a gold star for learing whatever’s assigned by an authority figure behind a desk.

  13. Another term that shares some of this concept space (at least in contemporay Australian English) is “dork”.

    In my experience, dork is used as a slightly more affectionate form of “nerd”.

    For example, my lovely wife happily describes me as a computer dork. While I don’t really mind this – anything that makes her more likely to accept my growing collection of Silicon Graphics hardware is OK by me! – I would usually self-describe as a geek, rather thank a dork.

  14. What, no mention of ‘anorak’?

    I think you touch on something that really, really bothered me in the late ’90s and early ’00s: the idea that there was a newly prominent culture out there, something novel and interesting, and we too could be a part of it, if we just consumed the right things. I remember angrily declaring that playing video games doesn’t make you one of The Elect, no matter what some slack-jawed couch potato wants to claim about the amazing cultural significance of their preferred method of brain-idling. Yes, it’s an improvement over watching television, but that’s frankly a pretty awful endorsement.

    Have you ever read “The Guy I Almost Was“? I think it neatly described the boundary between geeks and hackers that you posit. I wasn’t engaged in geek culture back when “Mondo 2000″ et al. were claiming that they were the way, the truth and the light… but in retrospect, so far as I can tell, these people were all claiming that the new technologies of telecom would change the world, and they, as forward-looking technophiles, would show us the way. They were surprisingly correct on the first count, and utterly wrong on the second, to the point where “VR decks” and “Mondo 2000″ are symbols of zeerust almost as powerful as The Jetsons.

    I think you’ve pointed out the reason why the self-proclaimed heralds of the new age ended up an amusing historical cul-de-sac; they blew a lot of hot air and made a lot of noise, but they didn’t ship code, and as Mark Pilgrim put it, shipping code wins.

  15. How do you define culture production? Let’s take software for example. Do you consider simply writing software a culture production, or does the software have to actually be used by a non-insignificant number of people? Because geeks can write software by gluing together some code, but it won’t necessarily be successful.

  16. >Do you consider simply writing software a culture production, or does the software have to actually be used by a non-insignificant number of people?

    Well, it’s not production of culture if nobody notices, is it? I think the best way to analyze this case is that it’s possible to be a hacker manque in the same way it’s possible to be a poet manque – having the intentions of a creator but not the ability to make them matter to anyone else.

  17. A geek is someone who becomes so interested in $foo that he completely immerses himself in learning about it. He will know $foo at a level of detail that, if he shares even a tenth part of it will bore anyone but a $foo geek to tears. Much of what we say about hacker culture is really about the geek culture of which I believe hackers are a subset. (I say this because it is evident to me that the learning style that characterizes the geek is an essential part of hackerdom.)

    I don’t know that I require the actual “production of software” for someone to be a hacker. If you never write a line of code, but you are able to tweak configuration files to interface some persnickety hardware and perhaps unlock some previously-unusable functionality in it, (and then write a HOWTO so that others can share in what you’ve done) in my book you’re a hacker. (ESR’s distinction “Hackers build; crackers break” fits here.) If you can build a spreadsheet full of formulae incorporating knowledge into a useful format, even you have no macros that could be considered “programming” by most people, you’re hacking. (One could argue that writing those formulae is programming, conveniently sidestepping the question.)

    If you’re able to submit a bug report that identifies the precise behavior that triggers the bug, but don’t read the source code to locate the bug, you still may be a hacker. To me, that’s right on the boundary, as is writing documentation, teaching others to be better users of the software, etc. In order to do all of those, the hacker mindset is really important. Or is it the geek mindset?

    A nerd is socially tone-deaf. His clothing, personal grooming, and communications style show no awareness of mainstream norms. Sheldon Cooper, Howard Wolowitz, and Rajesh Koothrappali are each geek and nerd. Leonard Hofstadter is a geek, and is not a nerd himself, but is able to deal with their nerdiness.

  18. As far as a physics hacker (or any hard/natural science “hacker”), I would put that in the realm of the amateur scientist or perhaps maker. Things like these sites come to mind:
    http://www.sas.org/tcs/
    http://makezine.com/

    I wouldn’t expect a physics hacker to produce new physics (whatever that means) so much as using the application of physics to produce things.

  19. “Hacking” induces a picture in my mind of a person literally hacking a piece of code (text) into shape with an ax like a wood-worker would hack a piece of wooden furniture into shape.

    A “Cracking” gives me a picture of a person breaking open a box or safe like a nut.

    I have no idea what to picture with “Geek” or “Nerd”.

  20. >What, no mention of ‘anorak’?

    Not a live term in the U.S. I agree with Wikipedia, which says it’s a bit more more like anime-fandom usage of “otaku” than “geek”, but I’m much more aware of British slang than is average over here. Most Americans who have heard the term associate it with the film Trainspotting and vaguely know that Brits use it in a way similar to “geek”, but don’t grasp the precise connotations. The garment called “anorak” in Great Britain is “parka” in the U.S., but there’s no parallel application of “parka” to people.

    >I think you’ve pointed out the reason why the self-proclaimed heralds of the new age ended up an amusing historical cul-de-sac; they blew a lot of hot air and made a lot of noise, but they didn’t ship code, and as Mark Pilgrim put it, shipping code wins.

    I used to mutter about “Wired magazine syndrome”. Same idea.

  21. >Much of what we say about hacker culture is really about the geek culture of which I believe hackers are a subset.

    True, but requires a bit of care as terms like “law geek” are now spreading beyond people who you and I would think of as “geeks” (unqualified).

    >To me, that’s right on the boundary, as is writing documentation, teaching others to be better users of the software, etc. In order to do all of those, the hacker mindset is really important. Or is it the geek mindset?

    These edge cases are messy, but they are edge cases – I don’t think they invalidate the basic distinction.

  22. >What, no mention of ‘anorak’?

    Not a live term in the U.S

    Agreed. I saw the question and wondered what winter coats had to do with anything under discussion.

    FWIW, “geek” carries, to me, a connotation of supreme mastery of the trivia of a subject area, with competence in application of the information in new and occasionally surprising ways (as far as can be done by the average person”. The term “roadgeek” is in live use in that community. Want to see if someone’s a roadgeek? Ask them what the problem with I-99 is.

  23. > Want to see if someone’s a roadgeek? Ask them what the problem with I-99 is.

    That made my eye twitch. I guess that’s telling…

  24. Want to see if someone’s a roadgeek? Ask them what the problem with I-99 is.

    That’s easy. It isn’t the easternmost north-south Interstate.

    Personally, I don’t have a huge problem with that, since its numeric designation is not divisible by 5, but I know lots of people who find such situations abominable.

  25. “Hacking” induces a picture in my mind of a person literally hacking a piece of code (text) into shape with an ax like a wood-worker would hack a piece of wooden furniture into shape.

    A “Cracking” gives me a picture of a person breaking open a box or safe like a nut.

    The problem with calling (malicious) hackers crackers is that they already have a use for the term “cracker”: at least as far back as the early nineties, a hacker was someone who broke into other people’s computer systems without permission; a cracker was someone who stripped the copy protection off commercial software. It was routine to see “CraCKeD by BiTFreeK” and the like on the intros to pirated copies of games. Much of the world, including fora like Slashdot that are arguably second-order effects of Eric’s attempts to coalesce “hacker culture”, use the definitions I have given above. I see very little use of the term “hacker” in the MIT sense except among old-timers and people who are self-consciously attempting to reclaim the word. Most of the members of Eric’s “hacker culture” use “developer” or “geek” to refer to themselves or other members, with the exception of certain qualifiers where it’s completely unambiguous which sense was meant (e.g., “kernel hacker”).

    I’ve made comments like this before; what’s changed is that there is much more of a chance that “hacker” could regain its original meaning, and it’s mainly thanks to the malicious hackers’ more benevolent spiritual kin: people who modify the hardware or firmware of commercial electronics to make it behave in new and unexpected ways. So the people who jailbroke the iPhone and the PlayStation 3 are called “hackers” in the popular press; many of them are hackers in the jargon sense and these activities come close to the spirit of hacking in the sense used at TMRC, even.

    As for nerds vs. geeks, as I’ve seen them used once upon a time both these terms connoted high intelligence (with nerds somewhat smarter than geeks, and dorks being ordinary or even somewhat dim people who were ill-coordinated at sports and couldn’t get a prom date). This connotation has faded away. Recently I’ve used the term “krelboyne” (borrowed from Malcolm in the Middle, where it was used to refer to kids enrolled in the gifted-education program) to fill the gap.

  26. I gotta say in 2011 I would never refer to myself as a ‘hacker’ even during in-group conversation. The term has been thoroughly lost and means Something Bad ™ to essentially everyone. I submit that any attempts to reclaim the term or spot its reclamation are just wishful thinking. Sadly, nothing seems to really replace the original (and correct) meaning of hacker.

    May as well attempt to reclaim the term ‘collaborator’ in the post-WWII world.

    I volunteer to be wrong. But can anyone point to any significant quantity of non-bad use of the word hacker in the mainstream?

  27. This essay takes me back.

    I remember in the 90s that I would never tell anyone that I wrote software for a living, especially not women. I would always them that I was a skating instructor or a snowboarding instructor, even though I barely made any money doing those things. But anything related to computers in those days, especially in the early 90s, was like a natural form of birth control.

    It was really surreal for that to do a complete 180 by the late 90s. I went from having a nerdy job that I didn’t talk about to having a cool job that I still didn’t talk about.

  28. I agree with Kevin’s “Lisa Simpson” characterization of the meaning of “nerd”.

    Another word worthy of analysis here is “poindexter”. It remains an epithet (very unlikely to be self-applied even as self-deprecation) and approximately denotes the sort of stereotype seen in Revenge of the Nerds but without any admission regarding the subject’s intelligence. Unlike “geek” in its old sense, “poindexter” is generally disused by people above blue-collar SES.

  29. >But can anyone point to any significant quantity of non-bad use of the word hacker in the mainstream?

    I was all set to do so, then realized it would be likely to turn into a dispute over what constitutes “mainstream”.

  30. A geek is a person who has opinions about what constitutes “mainstream” and what does not, and holds them with sufficient fervency that, even if he’s socialized enough to know that such behavior is rude, he will nevertheless implicitly understand why one would start (or join) a flame war over the matter. :)

    But seriously…I’d say Jay’s definition is the closest seen here so far. Perhaps with addenda concerning the geek’s depth of knowledge being inexplicable in strictly economic or utilitarian concerns. (Knowing the deep minutiae of the professional sub-specialty where you practice makes you an exceptionally competent practitioner, but not necessarily a geek. Knowing the deep minutiae of areas of knowledge that have, at best, tangential relationships to anything you might actually _need_ to know about makes you a geek.)

    “Nerd”, though, is principally a subset of “geek”. All geeks are deeply knowledgeable about minutiae of their chosen obsessions. But nerd-dom is reserved for those lacking even enough social graces to recognize that one is interacting with someone who _doesn’t care_ about one’s obsession.

  31. >>But can anyone point to any significant quantity of non-bad use of the word hacker in the mainstream?

    >I was all set to do so, then realized it would be likely to turn into a dispute over what constitutes “mainstream”.

    Yes. For the opportunity to be proven wrong I’d gladly accept a broad definition.

    Most of my cues come from the people I do computer support/development for. They frequently say things like “someone hacked my Facebook account”, “don’t want anyone hacking my wireless”, “hackers broke into Big Company and stole credit card numbers”, “my computer’s got a virus, wish these hackers would find something else to do”. They’re business owners, elected officials, professionals including doctors and lawyers, and lots of regular folk. To them hacker == computer criminal.

  32. It’s interesting this topic be brought up, since (given my linguistic proclivities) it’s one I’ve given a great deal of thought to and convinced my wife to write a paper about for her psychology degree. Here are the definitions I gave her:

    nerd – high intelligence, focused on some single topic to the exclusion of others, almost always hard science, math, or engineering related (you don’t hear about history nerds or lit-nerds in the same context as physics or math nerds). Socially awkward (tone-deaf was the phrase used earlier), unless engaged in the nerd’s chosen field, because of a lack of interest (social interaction doesn’t fall within the nerd’s topic of interest, so he doesn’t care).

    geek – high intelligence, spread out over several areas of interest (usually nerd-focus in a particular field with lower levels of interest in other, not-necessarily-related fields). Still socially awkward, but the boarder areas of interest allows for some level of compensation, so the net effect is that geeks can generally get dates while nerds cannot.

    dork – this is much fuzzier, since it seems to be used as a mild insult after demonstrating some example of encyclopedic knowledge about a topic (I got called this the other day by a co-worker regarding my recitation of the non-canon Litany of the Mentat as applied to coffee).

    Early on I recognized myself as a typical science/math/computer nerd, even labeling myself as such, figuring I was at least something to fit into the brutal social structure that is public school. But I am also a skilled oboist, proficient percussionist, very nearly took a class in technical theater in middle school (SFX makeup and costuming is fascinating), and would argue I understand at least as much about economics as some Nobel-laureates that go by the initials PK (thought that’s probably not saying much), so there is geekdom as well.

  33. One thing that I’ve personally considered significant in the definition of Geek is enthusiasm for a particular topic to the point of independent study. It may turn into a profession and some point, but a core amount of the knowledge acquisition must be self-guided.

  34. >Yes. For the opportunity to be proven wrong I’d gladly accept a broad definition.

    Annoyingly, I had a perfect cite for this about three weeks ago – newspaper article by somebody doing the William Safire thing, discussing the evolution of college slang with a side trip into some of the terms we’re discussing. But it was on paper (clipping mailed to me by a friend who still does that) and I can’t find it.

    Would you accept the Oxford English Dictionary as a mainstream source?

  35. >Would you accept the Oxford English Dictionary as a mainstream source?

    Well, no, actually. I was looking for mainstream *use*, not definition. In this context you are probably a better source for definition than Oxford so we have that angle covered. I was thinking of something from CNN, Fox, NYT, WSJ or somesuch.

  36. IMHO “geek/geeky” and “nerd/nerdy” have only accidentally to do with each other.

    Geek/geeky: interested in using his brain with typically a focus on technology (and / or science), which is often an unpopular attitude and is well fit for socially reclusive introverts (which tends to correlate with not scoring much on the battlefield of sex), but not necessarily so. Some aspects of geeking/hacking are becoming popular: a smartphone expert from the viewpoint of the average extroverted college girl is quickly becoming a cool, “in” guy. There are extroverted and good-looking geeks who apparently never had a problem neither with finding girlfriends nor with creating a circle of friends, being popular – DHH is best example, he is a totally non-nerdy geek.

    Nerd/nerdy: socially reclusive, introvert, low self-esteem, prone to depression, bad connection with reality, which leads to unpopularity and to sexual frustration, which leads to the tendency of imagining fantasy worlds where you are the muscular fighter, or the charming, womanizing bard, or the wizard who might be sickly but can burn anyone to death who does not respect him: yes, the typical staple characters of most usual, mainstream swords & sorcery fantasy RPG and novel are dreams nerds are compensating with for their IRL failings.

    There is of course an overlap between geeks and nerds because geeking is one of the few things a nerd can do, but nerds do not necessarily have the logic-worshipping mentality and intelligence of geeks, some are rather average, focusing on anime porn and suchlike, and doing a data entry job, and some are utter failures ending up in a sect, as drug addicts, or at McDonalds.

    Heinlein must have been a geek but surely no nerd. The sad 40 year dudes in the local RPG club with bad bodily odors and listeing to Cannibal Corpse are nerds but not geeks, because geeks are nerds only when young, they usually figure out later on that it is no way to go through life, they are too intelligent, logical and well-connected with reality to keep on being nerds living in a fantasy world after 25-30 or so.

    Best way to put thed difference is: geeks read the XKCD comics. Nerds _should_ read the modern classic “How not to fail at life (quit bitching about the bitches) “instructional comics”:

    http://img242.imageshack.us/img242/6827/howtonotfailatlifepn3he9.png

  37. Geek is pretty non-pejorative now, unless you’re hanging the chicken coop with Sideshow Bob style hair and a longing, nostalgic look in your eye. Modern people with computer troubles will desperately scream for a Geek to help them, which pretty much nixes the idiot connotation, nowadays. One theory I have heard about the word’s derivation is that, back in WWII, GI’s who’d completed their electronics/radio/radar courses had GEneral Electronic Knowledge marked on their papers – whether this is true or not, I have no clue.

    There is, of course, the fine British English word ‘Boffin’, which those splendid chaps at The Register have dragged, kicking and mensurating, into the 21st Century. ‘Boffin’ and ‘Boffinry’ (which is what Boffins do) has an almost mystical cachet to it, rather like ‘maven’ or ‘Guru’, but less… showy somehow.

    And speaking of hacking: http://revsven.com/?p=7

  38. @Michael Hipp:

    One interesting development is the term “life hacker” which recently showed up on a National Proletariat Radio story, which they defined as someone who is a master at optimizing everyday routines. The interesting question is how do you get from “hacker == security breaker” to this definition without understanding the meaning of “hacker” in the canonical sense?

    I’m not sure that the mainstream use of the word “hacker” is so clear cut and dried.

  39. Over the years, it’s been my experience that the term “hacker” as most the denizens of this blog know it, is a completely tribal thing. If you know what I mean by “hacker”, then you’re part of my tribe, if you don’t, you’re not.

    Nerd and geek have always been more … amateurish (not sure that’s the right word). As Eric stated in How to Become a Hacker, hacker is an honorific bestowed upon one by others in the tribe, not a title that can be claimed, where nerd and geek are descriptions that one can claim. I can claim to be nerd, but I cannot claim to be a hacker unless someone (preferrably a gatekeeper) has bestowed that title upon me.

    As for what people outside the hacker tribe think, I’d say that the confusion surrounding “hacker” and “cracker” will never really be rectified because the cracker tribe uses these terms in a different context and it’s THAT context that the media tends to use. In fact, that context has now been codified in certifications, such as “Cisco Ethical Hacker” cert, and such services are now part of the computer security industry, e.g. “White Hats”, “Ethical Hackers”, etc. There’s a significant momentum there with money behind it that it’s not likely will be changed now.

    I think, Eric, what you’re seeing the media being more receptive to our definitions of “Hacker/Cracker” is in fact the result of the media becoming more aware of the two different tribes and their lingo’s. If somebody knows who ESR is, they likely know what tribe ESR belongs to and adjust their verbal filters accordingly. If ESR is just, “some Open Source dude,” or worse, “some Linux dude,” then they likely haven’t a clue what the difference is and will revert to the default Hacker==Cracker mindset.

  40. Eric referred to me as a ‘game hacker’ rather than a ‘game geek’. I use the term ‘game designer’, which is the term of art in the business, as opposed to ‘game writer’.

    Games have people who work on rules – this is analogous to programming in some ways, though compiler errors tend to not fail as loudly. These are game designers.

    Games have people who work on support material – this is analogous to being a scriptwriter (for writing adventure products) or an encyclopediast, for writing up source books on settings. These are game writers.

  41. In my opinion, if a value based hierarchy is to be created using the four terms, hacker is at the very top.

  42. > anorak

    Boffin, OTOH, is live, and I think tends more towards nerd than geek… but closer to hacker, as well.

    > I-99

    And in this crowd, I suppose I shouldn’t even say “wrong way concurrence”?

  43. > Baylink

    I think Boffin, as a term, has an ambivalent, dangerous edge to it that’s closer to ‘hacker’, or maybe even ‘Druid’: to put it in an American idiom, a ‘jock’ would say ‘Hey! Let’s go raid the nerds’s frat house…’. ‘Let’s go raid the hackers’s house’ wouldn’t get many volunteers in this day and age! Nerds are easy social prey, Boffins, on the other hand, are often stout, tweed-wearing chaps and chapesses with pipes clenched firmly in their manly jaws, who probably play Rugby when they’re not helping with the War Effort or inventing tasteless, odourless super-laxatives. As an example of an American Boffin, I give you Jack Parsons – nobody’s nerd.

    Is Eric a Boffin? Never having seen a photograph of him wearing a white lab coat whilst standing next to a (running) van der Graaf generator, I couldn’t really judge. But I could imagine a conversation that went something like: ‘He may look like a Football Hooligan in that “Show your Tits” T-shirt, but, actually, he’s a wizard software boffin!’

  44. > Nerds want to fit in, but don’t; Geeks have more important things to worry about.

    That would be a big part of the difference. I think that might be a consequence of people having a hard time understanding they’re different from others, a common manifestation of the teenagers’ insecurity. And that’s, probably, because their tastes are not strong enough or defined enough. Or because they’re not surrounded by the ‘right’ people, that is, people with interests similar to them. IMHO, a young nerd who meets a geek is likely to become a geek. And a young geek who meets a hacker, is likely to become a hacker. Somehow, the trends are aligned. Now, a nerd is more likely to go over to the dark side if meeting a cracker than a geek is. Because of the need for social acceptation derived from their insecurities, and the illusion that breaking things ‘with tools made by others’ will make them cool and l337… well, I can see how it’s tempting, when in the proper ignorance. I think I know now where a lot of lamers come from.

    >A nerd, OTOH, is someone like Lisa Simpson who likes school and “enjoys learning” in the sense of liking to get a gold star for learing whatever’s assigned by an authority figure behind a desk.

    I think that complies with the need for acceptation theses. If these people accepted themselves, or weren’t rejected by peers, they’d not need the authority figure’s approval. Now, Lisa is not a geek… she’s Lawful Good, that’s all. No geek could play the Sax like her, and she doesn’t really care about what others think. As far as the “liking to get a gold star for learning whatever is assigned to them”, independently of whether it is a figure of authority behind a desk or a cracker who wants to appear smart in front of someone, we agree.

    > As for “Geek Squad”? You won’t find a single true geek there, but you’ll probably find a lot of nerds.

    Nah, you’ll find a lot of vanilla IT Technicians that just want to make a living… and a smart Marketing department, that wants people to think they have a knowledgeable staff.

    > A nerd is socially tone-deaf. His clothing, personal grooming, and communications style show no awareness of mainstream norms.

    But then again, that is not what defines them– rather the attitude they take towards their social awkwardness its what makes them lean towards nerdyness.

  45. >Would you accept the Oxford English Dictionary as a mainstream source?

    No, saying that a term is in mainstream use because it is in the OED, is like saying software is in mainstream use because it’s in debian.

    Some bbc articles use the word your way (e.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12144831 ).

    The most notable use I can think of in my physical life is when my dad had to ask his work’s IT department to add some sort of filtering exception to their intranet (it was blocked because it contained “hacker”), when researching NeoOffice. Quite suprising since some of the staff there use linux pc’s there.

  46. No geek could play the Sax like her, and she doesn’t really care about what others think.

    You’ve never heard of band geeks? I was one in middle school.

  47. As an example of an American Boffin, I give you Jack Parsons – nobody’s nerd.

    There are several famous persons known as “Jack Parsons,” but I’m assuming you mean this one, the famous Caltech rocket propulsion researcher, perhaps best known for his involvement in Thelema and the O.T.O.?

  48. You’ve never heard of band geeks? I was one in middle school.

    Moi aussi. And, I play better saxophone than Lisa Simpson. Or, at least I used to.

  49. And then there are Dweebs – somewhere on the continuum between dork and nerd?
    Boffin (good term) or not, Parsons seems to have been a bit too twisted to fit into the relatively harmless company of nerds and geeks.

  50. The term weenie…also….as in design weenie may be applicable.

    Nerds-are not necessarily that smart.

    I think the sigma on nerd intelligence is much larger than geek sigma. Geek mean is to the right. Hackers are fat tail people…right tail.

  51. > No geek could play the Sax like her, and she doesn’t really care about what others think.
    Should’ve made it clear, this was a tongue in cheek part of the comment… the rest of the comment is more serious, though.

  52. No mention of She’s Geeky? http://shesgeeky.org/ The unconference for women working in technology and sciences? Of course, my friend Isabel, when I asked if she was going since there was one in her city, said “Isn’t there one called She’s Hot and Geeky?”. (You’ve met her, Eric.)

  53. I’m not sure about “gaming geek.” I’ve written multiple supplements for Steve Jackson Games and am currently working on another one, GURPS Social Engineering; I run campaigns, create settings for many of them, and write rules mods for even more. But I’ve never been called a “gaming hacker.” I don’t think the term is used in my subculture.

  54. > I’m not sure about “gaming geek.” I’ve written multiple supplements for Steve Jackson Games and am currently working on another one, GURPS Social Engineering; I run campaigns, create settings for many of them, and write rules mods for even more. But I’ve never been called a “gaming hacker.” I don’t think the term is used in my subculture.

    -rather longish post. can skip and read conclusions in the end, then go back if you think something might be interesting-

    But I’m not entirely sure you’re “just” a gaming geek. A modder is, effectively, a hacker in the gaming subculture; I was inclined to agree it was the same with indie developers, but then thought: not all of them. There’s many an indie cloner and ‘I-do-that-too’er out there. Many can be thought of as hackers, though.

    And some established ones, too, not only indie gamedevs. Take Peter Molyneux, for example: he’s at Lionhead studios, which is now part of Microsoft… but he’s been designing games that differ from everything else since… since populous, iirc. Games where you can choose to be bad and still win, or that dungeon game in which you were the bad one. That’s certainly bending some rules, some paradigms at the least. And he’s coded a piece or two, although his code is, sadly, closed to peer review.

    But gamedev hacking is more in the creative invention of rules and bending of established rules line than in the coding sense. With obvious exceptions like John Carmack, who is an excellent coder.

    I wonder how much of good coding is just… breaking or bending the “established rules”. There is a standard, learnable way to do most stuff there is to do with software. That is not, imho hacking. And please, elders out there, set me right if I’m not: hacking is more about discovering the flaws in those established ways, or in creating the new established ways, or in correctly extrapolating knowledge into a new area. That analysis (elder approval pending) leads me to the conclusion that there are some good coders out there who are not hackers. They’re just good, not better. They use the techniques available, not create new ones. Most likely don’t even find out the reason for the existing techniques, and their limitations, and if there are any options, which would be (again imho) the attitude of any hacker who has not had the chance to create a new technique/algorithm for any number of reasons.

    Conclusions:
    1- Although the term ‘hacker’ is not readily used in the gaming subculture in the sense it is in the… well, the hacker subculture, there is at least one term that fits with a hacker: a modder.
    2- Not only indie devs are hackers, and not all are hackers either. And there is enough room in the gaming branch of development for there being non-programming hackers (designers).
    3- Not all good programmers are hackers. Not that useful, or new, but a point I rather like to make.

  55. >And please, elders out there, set me right if I’m not: hacking is more about discovering the flaws in those established ways, or in creating the new established ways, or in correctly extrapolating knowledge into a new area.

    I think this is technically correct, but misleading. Hackers care little for what is ‘established’ in programming, nor do they feel any intrinsic need to establish new ways. The hacker attitude is that any tool that gets the job done is right, and a tool that gets it done with style an elegance is more right; good tools establish themselves by getting the job done, and poor ones fade from use.

  56. iajrz: What on earth is a “modder”? I’ve never heard the word. At Steve Jackson Games they call people who do what I do “writers.”

    Perhaps you’re imagining that I have something to do with computer games. Not in the slightest. I’m talking about what many people call “tabletop games”: half a dozen people in a living room with dice, character sheets, and rules books. We don’t do “coding”; we modify rules and write up house rules. And people who do that are likely to be called “gaming geeks” and even to be considered to be quintessential examples of that category.

    The distinction between “geek” and “hacker” may well be valid among you people who deal with code, but people who deal with text don’t use the word “hacker” for anything that we do.

    And yet it seems to me that when, several years ago, I said, “Hey, Amber Diceless looks like the ideal engine for running a campaign set in Eddison’s world Zimiamvia!” and stripped out all the specifically Amber references and added in a fifth stat, Intelligence (in the military sense), to go along with Strength, Warfare, Endurance, and Psyche, and eventually figured out a rules tweak to handle one men against a crowd . . . what I was doing must have been akin to what hackers do with code.

  57. “nerd – high intelligence, focused on some single topic to the exclusion of others, almost always hard science, math, or engineering related (you don’t hear about history nerds or lit-nerds in the same context as physics or math nerds). …

    geek – high intelligence, spread out over several areas of interest (usually nerd-focus in a particular field with lower levels of interest in other, not-necessarily-related fields). …”

    It is not exactly the opposite? The geeks the obsessive types, and the nerds the generalist bookworms?

  58. > iajrz: What on earth is a “modder”? I’ve never heard the word. At Steve Jackson Games they call people who do what I do “writers.”

    Ah! I mistook you for a computer game developer who /also/ enjoyed tabletop games and wrote settings and such and such. Sorry :-)
    Aye, a writer you’d be, not a modder… a modder is a person who tweaks a game to make it different. A relevant and recent such mod is the DoTA custom scenario for Warcraft III, which spawned a vertient of action computer games.

    On a side note, your kind of work is analogous (as far as I can tell) to computer game designers, as far as creating game rules, mechanics and scenarios goes.

    > I think this is technically correct, but misleading.
    Thanks for fine tuning the idea. I agree with the clarification.

  59. Edit: “a modder is a person who tweaks a computer game to make it different”

  60. Ken: I tend to think of “game designer” as reserved for people who, you know, create a NEW game. I don’t do that. On the other hand, I’m currently working on a GURPS supplement that is around 80-90% rules content. The majority of the online peer review has focused on rules issues, though there has been some debate over style choices. My contract calls me an “author,” not a “designer.” So usage seems to be varied.

  61. I think nerd got its bad reputation back in the ’70s with shows like “Happy Days” where Potsie Weber was a ‘nerd,’ meaning basically socially inept, even though he had a remarkable talent for singing.

    The hacker/cracker distinction never really got traction. I can see changes in the media portrayal of the term hacker however. They are starting to grok the black hat / white hat distinction. You’ll now see usages such as “malicious hacker,” indicating that the term unqualified, is not necessarily negative.

    Most likely, the media is too scared to use the term cracker, as it was one of the many unsuccessful attempts at a pejorative for white people. (e.g. “honkey”)

    I just finished re-reading Underground, a well done “Hackers” documentary, and the inspiration for the dreadful Hollywood movie of the same name

    http://www.xs4all.nl/~suelette/underground/justin/index.html

    Considering the evolving use of the term: Many of the people in the chapters whom Eric would then likely have classified crackers, were simply involved in playful curious (albeit surreptitious) exploration of X.25, and the nascent ARPANET, precursor to the Internet. Few were even programmers, perhaps here is from whence the term geek began to draw meaning.

    Historical footnote: In the book, the hacker mendax, is in fact Julian Assange.

  62. >I can see changes in the media portrayal of the term hacker however.

    This week’s Economist used “hacker” correctly and without qualification.

  63. Being this post about language distinctions (and after coming back for comments many, many times) I remembered where i’d seen something on language distinction on what’s a geek and a nerd…

    http://xkcd.com/747/

  64. The distinction between ‘Geek’ and ‘Nerd’ that I use is that a geek is an obsessive neophile who may or may not be be primarily fixated on something useful. The characters on ‘The Big Bang Theory’ qualify as this but so do people who dedicate their lives to their X-Box. Essentially this is a more broad form of Otaku.

    Nerds on the other hand are determined to use their intellects for something useful. That is to say that a nerd will likely be deeply interested in science fiction but will always be more interested in actual research science. Neophiliac tendencies are little to none.

    In short try comparing a gaming web comic to XKCD and Dilbert.

    *I’m strongly NLD myself. I failed NCEA Level 2 in high school because I couldn’t understand the social conventions used in the test papers.

  65. Where I come from, in the 80′s people like me used to be called “computer freaks”, by some people at least – including many a tongue-in-cheek self-identification. I wonder what language would be like today, if that term had catched on more widely…

  66. Sorry, but I have yet to see a distinction made between ‘hackers’ and ‘crackers’ amongst the vast majority of people who may use computers of whatever form factor, but treat them strictly as a black box–just some ‘thing’ that they use to accomplish whatever they need to do at the moment. Update Facebook, etc. I gave up stressing that point, to those people, long ago.

    I get that you think Revenge of the Nerds was somehow an important movie, rather than just really, really bad. And I was coding and going to school in the mid-80s, so it’s not a generational Gen {X, Y, foo} thing.

    Perhaps it’s something to do with considering yourself a ‘participant-observer anthropologist’. Normally I am most interested in *reducing* the number of variables I have to consider. The last thing I would want to do is perturb a system by being a participant. Mistaken dates turn up frequently on this site, and there are demonstrable errors in your published work, such as the EOL of the horrible MPE/iX OS.

    I don’t mean this as an assault. The Art of UNIX Programming was a hugely worthwhile read, you’ve done good recent work related to src repos, etc. I appreciate the hell out of that–your code will make my life easier. You also have impeccable taste in pistols.

    However, I really wish you would get over your historic efforts to be the participant-observer-anthropologist-spokesman for a large and varried tribe. You so very *aren’t*. Many times, I’ve referenced your work, but had to preface it with remarks about how you thought the leaves were following you around, remarks about some sky-fairy Goddess, etc. Sorry, dude, but I have to talk to a lot of very rational people, and that sort of thing is an instant turn-off.

    Believe what you want, of course. But srsly. Ranting at Stallman, calling yourself the realist, staking out vast ground as a rational spokesman (for me, yet), and yet doing the Sky-Fairy thing? FAIL. The pair of you (and we can toss Torvalds in) are all pretty much tied for first on my list of people whom I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a elevator with.

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