Friday, May 9, 2014

Origins: Geek

As I mentioned last week, I'm changing the schedule a bit. Rewind posts will come every two weeks. I batted around a few ideas for what I'll do in the off weeks, and before I settled on anything I was completely satisfied with... it was Friday again. So, I'd like to introduce you to the new Origins column. Depending on your response, it may come every other Friday. It will feature background information related to blogging, geekdom, anime... you get the picture. This first Origins post comes courtesy of one of the most infamously difficult classes in my major, a class in which we studied... wait for it... the origins of the English language. I loved that class.

Anyway, prologue over. Read on, and don't forget to let me know what you think!


"What are some examples of words that have ameliorated over the years?" asked my professor. 

Several people chimed in with words that have better connotations than they used to. My contribution, of course, was "geek."

My professor thought about that for a second, and some of my classmates voiced dissent. They agreed that Best Buy's Geek Squad probably helped the word become a little more positive. But overall, it's still considered insulting in many circles.

This surprised me. Since we had to study the origins of ten words for an assignment, I put "geek" on the top of my list (the next word, of course, was "nerd" - I didn't ask if "otaku" could be used in this English word study, partially because I'd already let my geeky inclinations come out a lot in this class). I reported my findings in my assignment. Now, I share them with you, just in case you're as curious as me:

I was surprised to realize that, for many, geek is still an insult, so I looked into its origins. Ironically, it derives from the word “geck,” meaning “a fool, simpleton, one who is befooled or derided, a dupe,” as it was used in the 1500s (Simpson 6: 416-417). It is related to the North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian verb meaning “to croak, cackle,” and “mock, cheat” (Harper). 
In the last 150 years, dictionary definitions have edged toward the word I recognize. In 1876, geek was interchangeable with “Gawk, Geek, Gowk, or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.” It’s not a large stretch from there to the stereotypical image of a thirty-year-old geek in his mother’s basement. A 1915 definition is even closer, as geek meant a “person lacking animationor, as a sub-definition, “an unsociable or over diligent student” (Lighter). By 1983, teens used geek to describe “peers who lacked social graces but were obsessed with new technology and computers” (Harper). Its use has since expanded to include other obsessions.  
For the past three years, I have associated with geekdom online, particularly with those who identify themselves as anime geeks (or otaku, but that’s another word). This online culture is bound by interest and internet access rather than nationality, and it has developed a broader register, with more specific vocabularies in specialized areas fandom. We adopt titles like geek, originally meant as an insult, to give us a sense of identity and belonging. I think it expanded beyond technological geeks because the rest of us need a title to belong to, too, and this generalization has given us a feeling of strength in numbers.  

Simpson, J.A., and E.S.C. Weiner. "Geck" and "Geek". The Oxford English Dictionary. VI. Oxford: 1989.
Harper, Douglas. "Geek." Online Etymology Dictionary.
Lighter, J.E. "Geek." Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang1. New York: 1994.

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