Freaks & Geeks: A Cultural History of the Term “Geek”

By Emma Louise Backe

As a blog interested in the anthropological study of geek culture, we are also concerned with what it means to be a geek. As a part of our new series unpacking what it means culturally and personally to be a geek, this post will give some etymological and historical background to the term, written in a spirit of linguistic geekery.

To start off with, where does the word “geek” come from? Looking at etymology online (a great destination for all your word origin questions), geck means “’fool, dupe, simpleton’ (1510’s), apparently from Low German geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning ‘to croak, cackle,” and also ‘to mock, cheat’” (Etymology Online 2014). But it wasn’t until sometime in the early 19th century that, “the Scottish word geck, meaning ‘fool,’ changed to geek and began being used to describe a certain kind of carnival performer. Geeks specialized in eating live animals, including biting the heads off live chickens” (Mental Floss 2008). According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, “The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow ‘wild men’ is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham’s novel Nightmare Alley” (2014). Initially used to refer to a very specific type of carnival performer, the word soon became synonymous with freaks—that is, any individual who exhibited a physical trait that deviated from what was commonly understood within a society or culture as “normal.” Although the term designated a sense of social stigma and shame, circus and sideshow performers adopted the term “geek” as a collective and positive form of identity. While the general public could come to gawk at the freaks, performers referred to themselves as geeks, established in opposition to the norms and rubes in the audience. In Katherine Dunn’s cult classic Geek Love (1989), the Binewski family of self-made freaks represent the sense of union and kinship amongst those who self-identified and celebrated their geek status.

To be a geek, therefore, was to be set aside from “normal society.” Freaks or geeks were a community separated by physical difference, as well as social taboos and codes of morality at the time. As Robert Bogdan explains, “’Freak’ is not a quality that belongs to the person on display. It is something we created: a perspective, a set of practices—a social construction” (1990:xi). To a large extent, freakishness or geekishness were performed identities that capitalized on the spectacle of deformity or difference. Bogdan elaborates, “How we view people who are different has less to do with what they are physiologically than with who we are culturally […] ‘Freak’ is a way of thinking, of presenting, a set of practices, an institution—not a characteristic of an individual” (1990:10). Who a society deems to be freakish is exceptionally telling of a cultures system of moral codes, ideologies and structures of power and class. Social theorist Erving Goffman built Stigma: Notes on the Management of a Spoiled Identity (1963) around the characteristics that invoke stigma, and the ways in which societies have controlled or manipulated this difference so as not to disrupt established social orders. As Chemers and Ferris have written, “a ‘freak’ cannot exist in the absence of a preexisting social stigma, and second that freakery requires conditioned theatrical conventions that often enter into subversive dialectics with that stigma” (2008:25). As a cultural rather than an overtly physical condition, freakery/geekery meant, to a certain extent, “to be accepted into a community unified on the basis of shared marginality” (Adams 2001:42). The identity of the geek, therefore, has historical precedents in stigma, exclusion and nonconformity.

The meaning underlying the word geek, however, has changed since the mid-1900’s. Éva Zékány argues, “It can be assumed that the term extended its meaning to computer users after 1960, when the fist personal computers were starting to be commercialized (Polsson, 2010)” (2011:22), while the Online Etymology Dictionary states, “By c. 1983, used in teenager slang in reference to peers who lacked social graces but were obsessed with new technology and computers” (2014). The introduction of new technology spurred the creation of a digitally oriented community devoted to understanding, mastering and developing this technology. In 1994, for example, the “Geek Squad” was founded to provide 24-hour tech support. But the term did not merely denote tech-savviness, but also suggested that technological interest and knowledge came at the cost of a “normal” social life. Additionally, according to Lars Konzack, “A “geek”, however, is obsessively fascinated with particular subjects […] Thus a “geek” has the compulsion and drive to learn vast quantities of knowledge about a particular field such as computers, or Star Trek trivia” (2006:2). Geeks tended to be interested in elements of culture that were not typically considered popular. The stereotypical geek of the 70’s and 80’s was someone who loved comic books, played RPG’s like Dungeons and Dragons, spent hours in their rooms with the latest Sega game, had a Star Wars Rebel Alliance t-shirt, and spoke Klingon. The Online Etymology Dictionary references Anthony Michael Hall’s character in Sixteen Candles (1984) as a classic example of a geek.

For many years, geeks were ridiculed for their supposed lack of social graces and interest in obscure, weird or unusual forms of cultural and digital media. Once again, geeks were typified by their marginality and their difference. The representation of geeks in pop culture have replicated and almost cemented the validity of geek stereotypes. Geeks are often seen with glasses and a poor sense of style, socially bumbling and ever pining for the beautiful, popular girls they’ll never date. While geeks can be male or female, and of various races (such as Jaleel White’s Steve Urkel, Data Wang in The Goonies or Oscar Wao in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao), they tend to be characterized as white males that perceive themselves as social outcasts because of their interests and lifestyle.

As technology has changed and adapted, geek culture has also grown. Judd Apatow’s show Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) spotlighted the marginality of geeks while exploring the dimensions of what it truly means to be different. Throughout the show, Sam, Neill and Bill—the consummate geeks who completely own their geekiness—are the true heroes, while Lindsay’s “freak” friends represent the contingent of disaffected youth that seem to care about very little. The geeks are admirable in their self-confidence and sense of community held together by mutually held geeky interests.

Contemporary geeks may LARP (live-action role play), go to otaku conventions, play endless hours of World of Warcraft, or have read every Superman comic EVER, but are also starting to move out of the social margins. The Big Bang Theory (2007-) is an undeniable (though in my opinion inexplicably so) pop culture phenomenon, and many news sources have hailed the “triumph” of the geek (Westcott 2012; Harrison 2013; The Economist 2014). While comic book movies were once seen as fringe interests, Marvel and DC continue to pump out television shows, movie and video games to support the massive comic franchise the wider public now craves. Interests and activities that were once deemed weird and othering have slowly become (dare I say it?) cool. Geek culture has diversified and spread around the world, manifesting in forms like hikikomori in Japan (Jones 2006) or Steampunk communities (Feuer 2014). While geek identity may have become more socially acceptable, many feel that the geek identity has been cheapened and fabricated by certain groups of people. The “authenticity” of geekiness has become a focal point of contention within the geek community. Who are the gatekeepers of geek culture? Although geek culture has historically existed at the fringes, it seems as though certain members of the geek community want to maintain a sense of distance from popular culture. These divisive attitudes have launched debates about “fake geek girls” and the gendered dimensions of geekery.

The identity of the geek at the moment is therefore a contentious one, in which certain individuals are called upon to prove their geekery based off of a set of arbitrary interests or activities that often replicate stereotypes rather than acknowledge the complex dimensions of geekery. I, myself, have been questioned about the decision to identify as a geek. There are many elements of popularly understood geek culture that I do not participate in or know in depth, but that does not preclude the fact that I spend much of my time reading, watching, creating, writing or cosplaying within a geeky context. Part of the reason why I identify as a geek was the sense of inclusion I felt within the culture. I would spend my Saturday nights streaming Soul Eater or Cartoon Network’s Justice League; I learned Elvish and conducted faerie quests with my middle school friends; I built whole fantastical worlds out of Legos, pretending I was Tiffany Aching or Sarah from Labyrinth (1986). My interests made me feel different amongst my peers, but, as John Scalzi states so beautifully, “It’s the sharing that makes geekdom so awesome” (2012). When you find others that share your interests, and want to engage with the fandom as much as you do, that’s when you know that you’ve found your people. I will end on a quote from the rest of John Scalzi’s post “Who Gets To Be a Geek?” because I think it perfectly encompasses everything I wish I could say:

Geekdom is a nation with open borders. There are many affiliations and many doors into it. There are lit geeks, media geeks, comics geeks, anime and manga geeks. There are LARPers, cosplayers, furries, filkers, crafters, gamers and tabletoppers. There are goths and horror geeks and steampunkers and academics. There are nerd rockers and writers and artists and actors and fans. Some people love only one thing. Some people flit between fandoms. Some people are positively poly in their geek enthusiasms. Some people have been in geekdom since before they knew they were geeks. Some people are n00bs, trying out an aspect of geekdom to see if it fits. If it does, great. If it doesn’t then at least they tried it. Many people believe geekdom is defined by a love of a thing, but I think — and my experience of geekdom bears on this thinking — that the true sign of a geek is a delight in sharing a thing. It’s the major difference between a geek and a hipster, you know: When a hipster sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “Oh, crap, now the wrong people like the thing I love.” When a geek sees someone else grooving on the thing they love, their reaction is to say “ZOMG YOU LOVE WHAT I LOVE COME WITH ME AND LET US LOVE IT TOGETHER.” (2012)

For me, the geek friends that I had didn’t judge my differences or my interests. We simply wanted to love the same things together in our own personal ways. I found the same kind of community with the other writers and editors at The Geek Anthropologist.

 

And how does being a geek relate to being an anthropologist? Lee Drummond discussed a conversation with an editor at Anthropology News who said, “that most of the anthropologists she speaks with describe themselves as “outsiders” – individuals who have gone through life believing that they never really belonged” (2000:6). Perhaps to be a geek, to exist on the margins but with the initiative to share, is not so much unlike being an anthropologist.

 

Works Cited 

Adams, Rachel (2001). Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Apatow, Judd (2003-2005). Freaks and Geeks. Apatow Productions and DreamWorks Television.

Bogdan, Robert (1990). Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Chemers, Michael M. & Jim Ferris (2008). Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show. Palgrave Macmillan.

Diaz, Junot (2007). The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. New York: Riverhead Books.

Donner, Richard (1985). The Goonies. Warner Bros. & Ambler Entertainment.

Drummond, Lee (2000). “Who Wants to Be an Anthropologist?” Anthropology News, Vol. 41, Issue 8. pp. 6-7. http://openanthcoop.ning.com/profile/LeeDrummond

Dunn, Katherine (2002). Geek Love. New York: Vintage Books (Random House, Inc.).

Feuer, Alan (2014). “Steampunks at Sea.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/16/travel/steampunks-at-sea.html

Floss Books (2008). “Geek vs. Nerd vs. Dork: What’s the Difference?” Mental Floss. http://mentalfloss.com/article/19524/geek-vs-nerd-vs-dork-whats-difference

“Geek (n.)” (2014). Online Etymology Dictionary. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=geek

Goffman, Erving (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Harrison, Andrew (2013). “Rise of the New Geeks: How the Outsiders Won.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/fashion/2013/sep/02/rise-geeks-outsiders-superhero-movies-dork

Henson, Jim (1986). Labyrinth. Lucas Film & Jim Henson Company.

Hughes, John (1984). Sixteen Candles. Channel Productions & Universal Pictures.

Jones, Maggie (2006). “Shutting Themselves In.” The New York Times Magazine. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/15/magazine/15japanese.html?pagewanted=all

Konzack, Lars (2006). “Geek Culture: The 3rd Counter-Culture.” Proceedings of the inaugural “Fun n’ Games” Conference. pp. 71-78. http://vbn.aau.dk/en/publications/geek-culture(aa7e41a0-afa4-11db-8b72-000ea68e967b)/export.html

Scalzi, John (2012). “Who Gets To Be A Geek? Anyone Who Wants to Be.” Whatever. http://whatever.scalzi.com/2012/07/26/who-gets-to-be-a-geek-anyone-who-wants-to-be/

The Economist (2014). “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth.” Dragon Con 2014. http://www.economist.com/news/united-states/21615623-more-americans-wish-they-had-super-powers-geek-shall-inherit-earth

Westcott, Kathryn (2012). “Are ‘Geek’ and ‘Nerd’ Now Positive Terms?” BBC News Magazine. http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-20325517

Zékány, Éva (2012). The Gendered Geek: Performing Masculinities in Cyberspace. Lambert Academic Publishing.

 

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About Emma Louise Backe

MA in Medical Anthropology and Global Gender Policy from George Washington University, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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