In the past, the nouns “nerd”, “geek”, “dork”, and “freak” all described pretty much the same person. He was scrawny and weak, wearing huge glasses and stumbling over his feet. But today, the four words have developed different definitions and different connotations. Today, nerds are (usually) proud to be nerds, and geeks are (usually) proud to be geeks.
I called someone a nerd a couple of weeks ago, and they were offended and tried to deny it. So I am back to day to define the words as I understand them and as I use them in daily speech. When I call you a nerd, I am not trying to offend you. In fact, I am paying you one of the biggest compliments that I know how to pay.
The word “nerd” often has the connotation of having something to do with computers. This can be the case (and often, nerds are very interested in computers), but it does not necessarily have to be the case. A nerd is an intellectual. They are characterized by a great love for learning, a great interest in the things that go on around them, and a great capacity for analysis. This means that they are very easily able to take any topic of interest and learn it systematically, seeing the main points and being able to learn how the smaller points fit into the bigger picture instead of just having to learn facts outright. Because of this, the nerd usually does very well in school in ALL subjects, not just subjects having to do with science or math. A good majority of the time, however, nerds tend to enjoy science and math more than the more artsy subjects (because math and science are more logical). But this does NOT have to be the case. Nerds often also love talking about their interests and having nice intellectual discussions. A non-nerd may sometimes consider a nerd to be anti-social, but unbeknownst to them, the nerd secretly considers the non-nerd to be boring and therefore not worthy of conversation.
The word “geek” is most often used in connotation with computers or computer games. Geeks are characterized by an obsessive tendency. Whereas nerds are usually interested in many different subjects, geeks are usually obsessed with one topic (and they know pretty much everything there is to know about that topic). This is where we get the descriptors “Band Geek” and “Video Game Geek”. For instance, a “Lord of the Rings Geek” would be a person who has not only read the trilogy (and the Hobbit), but also read the Silmarilion and still rues the fact that the movie made no mention of Tom Bombadil. Geeks may have a tendency to “geek out” whenever someone mentions their topics of interest, and therefore are considered a bit odd by the non-geek population. Nerds are often geeks (about some topic in particular), and geeks are often nerds, but the two descriptors are actually describing two different character traits.
The word “dork” has a negative connotation. Dorks are socially inept and often have self-esteem issues. They are also not particularly intelligent (they usually are considered to be dumb). They are usually the person in school who is always left out of group activities because of their lack of people skills, and often look odd (have acne problems and no muscles).
I actually only include this descriptor here because “Computerfreak” is the closest German translation of “Geek” that I have been able to find. The connotation of the word “freak” is overwhelmingly negative connotation. It is a derogative term, which describes someone as weird. But it does not necessarily have the connotation of social ineptitude (which the other words, sadly, do). A freak is ANY person who does not fit into social norms, whether they are goths, emos, skaters, nerds, geeks, or dorks (or any of the other cliques that exist).
I also took the liberty of looking up these terms in Wikipedia. The main definitions there are the more typical definition of a nerd/geek being a person who is anti-social and awkward, but there is mention that nerd/geek pride being on the rise. As a self-proclaimed nerd and geek (according to the above definitions), I certainly hope that the negative connotations traditionally associated with the words will eventually be lost forever.