Reclaiming “Geek”

Ever seen anyone bite the head off a chicken?

The Dutch and the Germans had a word for a fool, Geck, that eventually found its way into the freak shows of America.

Ever heard of that show Freaks and Geeks? The origin of the phrase comes from the difference between a freak show and a geek show.

The freaks were the ones born weird, by some disfigurement, or even those who voluntarily twisted themselves into something strange.

The geeks were the ones whose mind was off, the kinds of freaks willing to do the unthinkably gross. Like biting the heads off animals.

The sad side of the story is that the geeks were purely there for shock value to warm everyone up to the parade of freaks. And the geeks were often addicts who were paid on booze or drugs. Even in the circus they were often seen as the lowest of the low. At least the freaks could be called fascinating. Nobody volunteered to be a geek unless they were real low.

A geek will eat anything.

How did such a morbid terminology come to describe people who are really into cool stuff? In part because the stuff wasn’t deemed cool by everyone. “Geek” rose in prominence alongside “nerd” since the 1950s to describe similar categories: Socially inept men who didn’t function well in normal society and so got lost in obscure, intellectually-oriented or fantasy-related hobbies. It was definitely an insult.

To some, geek replaced nerd. To others, a geek became a different type of nerd. Whereas “nerd” was invented for the purpose of describing nerds (a new class of humans in the dawn of the computer age), “geek” had been around much longer by that time, and was also related to the idea of a weirdo, or a freak.

You could say that “nerd” came to mean only someone with little socialization skills who seemed to compensate with an intellectual skill, whereas a geek was someone freakishly into a particular hobby. “Nerd” was more generic and described a larger subculture that even many less nerdy normals could participate in, but geeks has a different sense of seclusion and desperation. These terms encompass deep-seated self-definitions that were bred out of being bullied and abused in countless environments, mostly schools.

But as with the freaks and geeks of the circus, if you know what you are and what it means you can do—that is, how people will see you and what talent comes with both your abilities and place in society—you can use it to your advantage. You can even make rubes out of the real nitwits: the general public. But most of all, you can accept who you are, because you are in the company of others, and you have rare gifts, however weird and “out of touch” with society.

Writer Julie Smith defines a geek as “a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized, who felt so little kinship with his own planet that he routinely traveled to the ones invented by his favorite authors, who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace—somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer, not a drab teenager’s room in his parents’ house.”

nerd-304337_960_720But over time these technologically-minded geeks came to notice that digital information was the future. Where they used to remain in photography stores, science labs, and workplace positions with little promotion, nerds and geeks became major players in the economy and the culture at large. Geeks are now CEOs, revolutionary inventors, music-makers, game designers, social media gurus, and respected school faculty.

Mark Zuckerberg was a geek at Harvard, and he’s still a geek today. Okay, maybe not the best example.

There are many theories about this shift. In one, geeks banded together to con the public into finding their culture cool. In another, geeks banded together to form social and informational technology that made it easier for them to interact with the public. In another, the digital age just happened to pick them. In another, we got tired of beefy, dumb men after the 1980s. In another, they exhibited a drive for societal justice after being bullied and used their wits to overcome social stigmas. And maybe all of these theories are partly true.

But even that does not mean the following:
a) geeks are no longer picked on, or stereotyped
b) that all geeks are now successful and idolized
c) that it is even agreed upon what a geek is
d) that “geek” is now impossible to offend by using

But consider how the name is word with such pride now. We “geek out” over cool things that we might be slightly embarrassed, yet paradoxically not at all ashamed about, due to their weirdness. Everyone goes through a period of geek chic. Best Buy has their Geek Squad, and there is a whole website, ThinkGeek.com, which sells some of the coolest stuff you can think of.

At some point, we reclaimed “geek.” To be geek is to be interesting, to be really into something, and not just because it is popular, but because it’s unique to you, oddly its own thing, to love it so much you’re into it despite it being unpopular—no, something that would be unpopular if it weren’t for you, something that used to be for geeks alone, and now is for others because the geeks allow it to be. Everyone is now expected to be a geek about at least something, to have a weird trait, to be a little bit of a freak, to be smart without being embarrassed about being smart if they can help it.

Because we’re all socially inept at times, and we want to escape, and “coming out Geek” allows us the opportunity to be publicly geek, to find doors to overcome our social anxieties by seeing what makes our hobbies and interests weird to one another, and share it.

While the stigmas associated with Geekdom have not disappeared, the world’s geeky people have gained much social capital. And if you know what the phrase “social capital” means, you’re a bit of an economics geek.

A geek will be into anything, and really be into it. Popular or not.

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