From The Social Network to The Walking Dead, geeks are everywhere in pop culture these days. But what are the roots of this occasionally hip pejorative?
I was going to start this column with some version of “the geeks will inherit the earth”—until I realized that expression has been beaten to death as soundly as the notion that geekdom is a bad thing.
It feels like I’ve been reading “Geeks are cool” articles for 10 years or more, and The Social Network’s mega-success continued the trend, when Entertainment Weekly dubbed its stars the “Sexiest Geeks Alive.” Wherever you look, it’s easy to spot references to kitchen geeks, Big Ten geeks, gastro-geeks, science geeks, film geeks, and foreign policy geeks. The recent “Geek the Library” campaign and the use of “geeks” on The Walking Dead show this omnipresent word isn’t done evolving. Everyone seems to be getting their geek on.
The Oxford English Dictionary—without a doubt, the word geek’s best friend—traces three main meanings of “geek” since the late 1800’s. First, it was a word for someone “foolish, offensive, worthless.” That meaning became ultra-specific in the early 1900s, when it started referring to circus performers who leaned toward the freaky and grotesque. The OED’s geek citations mention “a degenerate who bites off the heads of chickens in a gory cannibal show” and “a dumb sideshow stooge whose daily routine consists of being exhibited in a pit which he has to dig for himself.” Thankfully, these freak-type geeks are rare these days, though their spiritual descendants can be found on Jersey Shore.
Then there’s the sense of “geek” as a nerdy, dweeb-ish, Poindexter type. The earliest known example of “geek” meaning “brainy” popped up in a letter of Jack Kerouac’s circa 1957, in which the legendary writer said, “Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students” who had “big geek questions to answer.” This meaning is powerful and still holds, though during the eighties it started shifting from a bad thing to a good thing, as geekery gained respect, particularly in reference to computer geeks. A 1993 OED use offers insight and advice: “Geek is the proud, insider term for nerd. If you are not a dedicated techie, don't use this word.” Another use (from 2001) goes beyond warning to manifesto: “We're the nerds, the geeks, the dweebs: the men and women who can spend 20 hours straight contemplating 600 bytes of obscure, arcane, impenetrable computer code.”
Though the stereotype of a geek allows for little dating, much less procreation, “geek” has been a fertile word. In Visual Thesaurus, The New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer mentioned some of geek’s children: “... geeks get geeked or geeked out about the topics that excite them, indulge in geekfests, and achieve geekdom in geeksville. Best Buy has its Geek Squad, and fans of the TV show Glee proudly call themselves gleeks.” More Gleekage can be found here.
Zimmer’s article featured the “Geek the Library” campaign, which pioneered a new use of “geek” as a verb, where “to geek” means something like “to love” or “to heart.” The site asks readers to “Share what you geek” and shows videos of people who geek worms, engineering, art, vampires, barbecue, and so forth. This use is new, but “geek” has been verbed before. It’s meant to quit or back down, as well as to get the jitters or whim-whams, as in this 1984 quote: “It always used to geek me up when we were facing third-and-one or first-and-goal, and they would send me in to get it.” “Geeking” has also meant to live the geek life, either in the studious or circus senses.
The always informative Word Spy lists other variations, like the “geek gap,” which is “The disparity between executives who approve or oversee technological projects that they don't understand and the information technology workers who implement and maintain those projects.” A result of geek-gap-based misunderstandings could be “geeksploitation,” which sounds like a disturbing film genre but actually consists of “induc(ing) young computer programmers to work long hours by taking advantage of their enthusiasm and high energy levels.“ Mega-successful geeks are part of the geekerati, and a top geek is an alpha geek. Believe it or not, there’s even such a thing as “geeksta,” a play on “gangsta” that is apparently a techie-focused form of hip-hop (also known as nerdcore) that I hope to avoid for the rest of my natural life.
Speaking of life and its grim alternative, there is one recent use of “geek” that swims against the tide of positive uses. On The Walking Dead, where the terms “zombie” and “Undead American” are never heard—the shambling brain-munchers are called “walkers” and “geeks.” This seems like a strange choice, but it does fit well with the freaky, outcast-related senses of the word. Plus, it’s an easy word to yell when geeks are lurching your way.
It’s kind of satisfying that “geek” has come full circle—what was formerly a person who bit the heads off live chickens is now a former person who bites the heads off live persons. I guess even death can’t end the love affair between geeks and brains.