Mostly, I try to stay away from semantic quibbling and I almost always try to stay away from anything sensational, so please forgive me in advance. I’m taking a hard line of sorts with a blog post entitled, “stop geeking out.” and I’m somewhat doing so for effect. But this is coming from a place of earnestness.
I don’t really care too much about the term “geek” in and of itself; it’s the concept of “geeking out” that frustrates me. And it truly is the concept — I’m not interested in term policing. It’s not like I’d blow a gasket and be insufferable toward someone saying this in front of me; rather saying it in front of me inspires sort of a vague sadness in me, upon which I wouldn’t bother to comment.
But before I get to the reasons for my objection and my sadness, let’s take a look at the origins of the term “geek” as we know it today, originating from the idea of a “geek show.”
The Online Etymology Dictionary give the following for “geek”: “sideshow freak,” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck “a fool, dupe, simpleton” (1510s), apparently from Low Ger. geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning “to croak, cackle,” and also “to mock, cheat.” 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 (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).
The billed performer’s act consisted of a single geek, who stood in center ring to chase live chickens. It ended with the performer biting the chickens’ heads off and swallowing them. The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. It was a matter of pride among circus and carnival professionals not to have traveled with a troupe that included geeks. Geeks were sometimes alcoholics or drug addicts, and could be paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics.
Okay, so quick recap. Before the term meant “technology enthusiast” it meant, “idiot substance-abuser that earns a living performing unspeakable acts to amuse mobs.” That’s quite the transition!
The Historical Connection
Let’s examine that transition a bit. When I was a kid in the 1980s, I remember “geek” being an insult, but it was sort of interchangeable among a bevvy of insulting synonyms: dork, dweeb, nerd, etc. You can go looking for meaning in a taxonomy if you’re so inclined, but I don’t remember much distinction.
But, as I’d learn later, “geek” had a special and unique flavor of implication. It conveyed obsession and interest in technology. Interesting. But how do you get from “slow-witted alcoholic that will eat chicken heads for free booze” to “guy that really, really likes computers?”