There is one fact about the word “geek” which was widely known in my youth, but which I think has become less well known as the word has moved into the mainstream: the word, in English anyway, originally referred to a circus performer who specialized in grotesque displays, particularly in biting the head off a live chicken. It appears to have come to the English language from a German word describing a fool or dupe, though there is some uncertainty about that.
But when I was in high school, I don’t think I ever heard myself described as a geek. A nerd or a dork, yeah, but not a geek. To be fair, I went to a somewhat nerdy school – old, all-boys college-prep, Catholic school. How nerdy was it? Well, it was so nerdy that there were several tiers of nerdiness to be found in the school’s social structure. While I may have hung with a certain nerdy crowd that was looked down upon by the many who were cooler than us, there was at least one level below us whom we considered as too nerdy to be taken seriously. But if anyone were referred to as a geek back then, there was nothing good about it. They were being called something pretty awful; I don’t think anyone wore that badge proudly.
Fast-forward to today – forget about “It’s Hip to be Square.” It’s now “Chic to be Geek.” I suppose we have the personal computer to thank for that. As PCs of one sort or another have become a ubiquitous part of the average person’s life, there has been a growing need to deal with people who can understand and service those magical machines. Enter the geek (hmmm… now THERE’S a title for a new kind of kung-fu movie!). Joe Blow can’t afford to kick sand in the geek’s face; he NEEDS that geek. So now we have such services as The Geek Squad and Dial-a-Geek. But more than that, we have legions of people who proudly lay claim to the title of geek.
And that’s where I think we really see not just a social evolution, but a linguistic one, because I think a lot of the people who are called geeks today would not have been so classified a generation ago. So you see, it’s not just that it has become more socially acceptable to be a geek; the actual meaning of the word has changed. Years ago, it would only have been applied to people at the far end of the unsocialized, sunlight-averse brainiac spectrum, but it has now been broadened to include a plethora of types. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Am I longing for the good old days? Do I bemoan the transmuting of geeks into gold, as it were? Not at all. It is just that – evolution. It is the language shifting to serve and mirror the shifts in our society. I don’t think it’s a good thing or a bad thing; it’s a thing. But I think people would do well to bear in mind this shift of meaning when reading, watching, or listening to any nonrecent work utilizing the term. I would offer as a rough analogy the word “computer.” If you see the term in a century-old text, the term probably refers to a person who computes, rather than to a machine.
But, being a geek, I would use a term like “computer” to make my point, wouldn’t I?