The Definition of a Geek & Evolution of What it Means to be 'Geeky'
TLDR: In short, it’s not just about pop art colour schemes, superheroes and sitting hunched over a trestle table playing fantasy card games as the modern stereotype sometimes seems to be, it’s about being passionate about the things you enjoy and sharing it with those that appreciate it too; whether it’s suddenly trendy or not. Though we do enjoy fantasy card games... and trestle tables (they’re great for carboot sales and camping) and comic book art (which is a lot more enjoyable, but maybe not as functional as fold out tables) too.
The etymology (origins) of the word ‘geek’
The word ‘geek’ in its English dialect is thought to come from the German ‘geck’ which means ‘fool’, ‘fop’ or ‘freak’. Its roots can also be found in the Dutch and Afrikaans word ‘gek’ (‘crazy’) and the Alsatian (a German dialect) ‘Gickeleshut’, which means ‘Jester’s hat’.
In 18th century Austrian circuses, ‘Gecken’ were a type of ‘freak’ on display at carnivals, while in North America during the 19th century, a 'geek' was the performer in a geek show at a traveling sideshow, funfair or carnival.
The evolution of the definition of ‘geek’
Originally, ‘geek’ was a term that mainly appeared in relation to travelling shows – relating to a performer or act that dabbled in weird things. The 1975 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary gave ‘Geek’ had just one definition apparently:
’A carnival performer whose act usually consists of biting the head off a live chicken or snake’.
Nowadays a quick glance at several online dictionaries brings up the following additions to the above:
- [noun] an unfashionable or socially inept person.
- [noun] someone who is intelligent but not fashionable or popular.
- [noun] a person often of an intellectual bent who is disliked.
- [verb] to engage in or discuss computer-related tasks obsessively or with great attention to technical detail.
- [noun] an enthusiast or expert especially in a technological field or activity
- [noun] someone who is very interested in a particular subject and knows a lot about it.
The order in which the definitions are listed reflect (for the most part) how this definition has changed over time – from a circus performer that bites heads off of things, to a disliked, socially awkward individual or someone who likes tech, to a person who’s simply enthusiastic or knowledgeable about something.
During the technological revolution around the 1960’s, the word ‘geek’ became associated with computer users and the technologically savvy. In 1994 the ‘geek squad’ was formed with the aim of providing round the clock tech support. As time progressed, ‘geeks’ were less thought of in terms of chicken-head-eating-maniacs and more so ‘computer nerds’ who sacrificed their social life for screen time, or those interested in non-mainstream things.
Not so long ago the stereotypical geek was a bespectacled social outcast, due to their strange fringe interests and lifestyles.
But its since changed again.
The modern definition of geek
In 2013 ‘geek’ was named the ‘word of the year’ by Collins online dictionary, where its definition was updated to:
‘A person who is very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject.'
Ian Brooke’s, the dictionary’s consultant editor, noted it as ‘’a great example of a word that has evolved from having a negative meaning to having a positive one.’’ and that, ‘‘this change in meaning represents a positive change in perceptions about specialist expertise, and is a result of the influence of technology on people's lives.’’
It’s a good job Ian thought that way, otherwise the word of the year may have been ‘twerk’, based on its popularity that year... and we wouldn’t want that. That really would have been the time to board the boat with Bilbo Baggins to the Undying Lands.
However, while this new definition definitely aligns more with the modern day, some have expanded on it further.
An alternative definition of geek
When reading about the word ‘geek’, we came across a post by Jim MacQuarrie (Geek Dad) in Wired that added some food for thought in addition to the Collins dictionary definition.
He mentions that often, it’s ‘easier to build a group identity around whom is not part of a group, than it is to actually describe who is in a group’. That’s very interesting.
He also presented his own definition of geek:
‘Noun. Slang. A person whose interests ALWAYS take precedence over popularity or conformity. A person who displays the willingness to bear the public shame of liking some weird thing and not caring who knows it.’
This made us think about two things:
- Who decides who is in the geek group?
- Are the words geek and popular mutually exclusive?
And then also
- Does it even matter?
We like Jim’s definition of being a geek including that being geeky takes precedence over popularity. We’re all about standing out from the shoal for the right reasons. We think it’s a nice addition to the Collins’ definition.
But does the fact that geek is chic right now confuse things at all?
Who can be a geek, and is the popularity of geeky changing what it means to be one?
The geek culture war
The rise of geekiness becoming more socially acceptable (and profitable too) is more than evident: The takeover of computer game streaming, the explosion of the board game industry, the resurgence of Dungeons and Dragons, and anime (finally!) making its way to big streaming services in vast swathes, are just a few examples that show geeky is definitely trendy right now.
Some may argue it’s a generational thing – as people ‘our age’ have the disposable income to revisit the nostalgic things they once enjoyed. Some may say its big business capitalizing on that too. Some even argue that being a geek has been co-opted by those that want to be fashionable now it’s in the limelight – an army of fake gamer girls miming Overwatch songs while holding their Xbox controller upside down.
What do we think?
Who can be a geek?Do we need to meet a certain criteria to be a geek?
- Have we ever played Yugioh – yes, our mum dropped us off for tournaments when we were 13 and we made sure to let exactly none of our friends at school know.
- What about Magic the Gathering? A little bit. Pokemon? Yeh, we even knew the rules unlike the majority of shiny obsessed seven year olds.
- What about World of Warcraft? Don’t be silly, we stopped in Wrath of the Lich King and just watch other people play it now like most people do.
- Can we speak Elvish? Unfortunately not... we wonder if more people speak it than Cornish?
- When did we last play DnD? We don’t know the date, but it was with some guy called Tom and our Mum made us a chili for dinner. We even lit a candle.
Are we still geeks?
Who cares? Care about what matters – the benevolent things you enjoy, because that’s what geeks do, irrespective of whether they’re popular or not. That’s the bit in Jim’s definition that rings true.
Whether people like to feel included under the banner of geek or relish the rebellious nature of the word, who gives an Owlbear’s arse - let them be geeky how they like.
Some may look nostalgically at the times when to be a geek or nerd was to be an outcast – we do in some ways too - but it’s those who question the credentials it takes to be a geek that are the ones who are trying to put it into a boring box.
Do you think Dustin from Stranger Things or the guys in Revenge of the Nerds would rather be bullied for being different than have more friends and like minds to hang with? We don’t think so.
Those times were nostalgic because they were fun, not because they were lonely.
Some things don’t need to be defined, and if you enjoy something it’s usually even better when you share that enjoyment with someone else.
A nation with open borders
On our adventure through the definition of geek, we stumbled upon this post in the Geek Anthropologist, which mentioned some words from John Scalzi. To paraphrase: It’s the sharing that makes geekdom awesome... some people think geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but John thinks geeks are actually defined by the joy they get from sharing that thing – that’s the difference between a geek and a hipster.
There’s some definite truth to that in our minds: Have you ever met a Star Wars fan that doesn’t like talking about Star Wars, or a Trekkie that runs and hides when you mention Captain Spock, or a DnD player that hisses and hastily pushes their finger over your mouth when you ask them about their most recent adventure? We haven’t.
Our old neighbour was a train geek and he’d take any opportunity he could to let us know about it... if we didn’t pretended to be busy all the time as we fumbled for our keys when trying to open the door.
When you look at the words that surround the word ‘geek’. it’s easy to spot some contrasts: Words such as ‘outcast’ ‘unfashionable’ and ‘unpopular’ don’t seem to fit with where geeky seems to sit right now. And how can anyone be the gatekeeper for who’s a geek when geeks so delight in sharing?
We’re inclined to agree with John Salzi when he says: ‘Geekdom is a nation with open borders’.
Going back to the idea that it’s easier to build a group identity around whom is not part of a group, than it is to actually describe who is in a group, and if being a geek is about being enthusiastic about a thing (anything) and sharing that enthusiasm, aren’t we all geeks in some way? Unless you enjoy nothing and relish sharing your void of passion with no one too.
If we’re almost all geeks, who even really needs a rock solid definition of what it means?
So what does it mean to be a geek?
You can be a geek or be geeky about anything. All it takes is interest and passion – be it about plants, ponies or packs of trading cards (we suggest that ideally you pick something that’s not malevolent).
Being a geek is about pursuing the things you enjoy, whether it’s fashionable or not, because fashion is changing and transient. Real geeks will continue to be geeky, even when it’s not a gold mine for big business.
Because geeky started at home not in Hollywood: In your friends basements under a dusty light as you unfolded a badly drawn adventure map; on rainy evenings at your local game store as your mum dropped you off after school; in the computer room with your mates - while everyone else was running around outside throwing grass at each other; between friends who shared an enthusiasm.
Besides, geeky has been around before it appeared in a dictionary:
- Alexander Von Humboldt was a geek because he never gave up his passion for exploring; his enthusiasm was so much that it inspired Charles Darwin.
- William Adams was the equivalent of an Otaku in the 1600’s when he navigated to Japan against all odds and embraced their culture like no Englishman before.
- Ada Lovelace was into coding before Microsoft was a thing.
- Our Nan had a furious passion for collecting all those little figurines with coupons in the newspaper and listening to Susan Boyle, so maybe she was a geek about that.
Even if what we’re geeky about, where we go to be a geek, or how we display our geekines changes, the core is still the same: Unashamedly doing the things you enjoy, with people that share your passion where possible.
Be more geeky, more enthusiastic, more passionate, because the world is never going to reach its capacity for passion - it could do with a whole lot more. Don’t settle for trestle tables and strip lights if you don’t have to: Go solid oak, felt-lined, surround sound, colour changing, whatever you like. If anyone questions you say, ‘so what look at my nice table it’s cooler than yours’ and if you are indeed sitting at a trestle table say ‘so what it’s just a table, when did you become manager of Furniture Land?’. Or don’t, because who is anyone to say what geeky is really? The dictionary has had a wild ride trying to define it so far.
Maybe geeky did originally grow on the outskirts of what was once ‘cool’. Just because it is now, doesn’t mean it’s changed - it’s just moved into the limelight for a while, and we’ll enjoy it while it is. If being a geek ever goes back into the side-lines of what’s fashionable, you’ll know where to find us.
We’re just lucky that at this moment in time there’s a lot more people around to share our geekiness with.
p.s. We wrote 2000+ words about the word ‘geek’, does that make Happy Piranha geeks about geeks?