The evolution of ‘geek’

Image credit: Luís Eduardo Catenacci

Nowadays, geek culture rules the mainstream: comics such as Spider-Man are made into blockbuster films, and people are wearing thick-framed glasses, even if they don’t actually have a prescription. But geeks weren’t always cool: somehow, at some point, geeks reclaimed a term of ridicule and made it their own. So how did we get here?

If we turn to the history of the word ‘geek’, it appears to originate at some point in the late 19th century, developing from the related English dialect word ‘geck’, which meant ‘fool’. The first documented use of ‘geek’ dates back to 1916, when it was used to describe sideshow freaks in circuses or carnivals, specifically those circus performers who would bite the heads off live chickens. These performances were often called ‘geek shows’. William Lindsey Gresham used ‘geek’ in his book Nightmare Alley thirty years later to describe a sideshow performer. By the 1950s, ‘geek’ was used to refer to unsociable weirdos who were freakishly devoted to something intellectual. The dawn of the computer age in the 1980s saw ‘geek’ become attached to people who had profound computer knowledge and skills, but few social skills.

However, change was already in the air, as so aptly signaled by Huey Lewis’s declaration that “it’s hip to be square”. By the 1990s, the loser geeks who’d spent the past decade sitting in darkened rooms, ruining their already terrible eyesight by staring at screens all day, began to display the fruits of their labour. The computer industry was booming, and technology was progressing faster than anyone could have anticipated. Being a geek became a positive thing, suggesting an enviable level of knowledge, expertise, and enthusiasm.

However, now it seems that the evolution of geek has almost come full circle. When I look at self-professed geeks, with their top shirt buttons done up and their perfectly shined shoes, I can’t help but feel that ‘geek’ has become more of a fashion statement than a personality description. It seems to be far more about the image than the actual substance. But hey, maybe I’m just jealous.

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