The word geek is a slang term, with different meanings ranging from “a computer expert or enthusiast” to “a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts”, with a general pejorative meaning of “a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp[ecially] one who is perceived to be overly intellectual”.
This word comes from English dialect geek, geck: fool, freak; from Low German geck, from Middle Low German. The root geck still survives in Dutch and Afrikaans gek: crazy, as well as some German dialects, and in the Alsatian word Gickeleshut: geek’s hat, used in carnivals.
The word appears in the modern sense of a science, math, or technology enthusiast in Robert Heinlein’s 1952 short story “The Year of the Jackpot”.
Formerly, in 18th century Austria-Hungary, Gecken were freaks shown by some circuses. In 19th century, in North-America, the term geek referred to a freak in circus side-shows (see also freak show). In some cases, its performance included biting the head off a live chicken. The 1976 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary included only the definition regarding geek shows.
Although often considered as a pejorative, the term is also often used self-referentially without malice or as a source of pride – an example is the ‘Geek Squad’ of the Best Buy company.
The definition of geek has changed considerably over time, and there is no longer a definitive meaning. The terms nerd, gimp, dweeb, dork, spod and gump have similar meanings as geek, but many choose to identify different connotations among these terms, although the differences are disputed. In a 2007 interview on The Colbert Report, Richard Clarke said the difference between nerds and geeks is “geeks get it done.” Julie Smith defined a geek as “a bright young man turned inward, poorly socialized, who felt so little kinship with his own planet that he routinely traveled to the ones invented by his favorite authors, who thought of that secret, dreamy place his computer took him to as cyberspace—somewhere exciting, a place more real than his own life, a land he could conquer, not a drab teenager’s room in his parents’ house.”
Other definitions include:
- A derogatory reference to a person obsessed with intellectual pursuits for their own sake, who is also deficient in most other human attributes so as to impair the person’s smooth operation within society.
- A person who is interested in technology, especially computing and new media. Geeks are adept with computers, and use the term hacker in a positive way, though not all are hackers themselves.
- A person who relates academic subjects to the real world outside of academic studies; for example, using multivariate calculus to determine how they should correctly optimize the dimensions of a pan to bake a cake.
- A person who has chosen concentration rather than conformity; one who passionately pursues skill (especially technical skill) and imagination, not mainstream social acceptance.
- A person with a devotion to something in a way that places him or her outside the mainstream. This could be due to the intensity, depth, or subject of their interest. This definition is very broad but because many of these interests have mainstream endorsement and acceptance, the inclusion of some genres as “geeky” is heavily debated. Persons have been labeled as or chosen to identify as physics geeks, mathematics geeks, engineering geeks, sci-fi geeks, computer geeks, various science geeks, movie and film geeks (cinephile), comic book geeks, theater geeks, history geeks, music geeks, sport geeks, art geeks, philosophy geeks, literature geeks, historical reenactment geeks, video game geeks, and roleplay geeks.
- A more recent school of thought sees nerd as being a derogatory phrase, while geek is simply a description. It is taken to be someone who is an enthusiast, often in things outside of the mainstream spectrum. It may also describe immersion in a particular mainstream interest to an extreme that is beyond normalcy (e.g. sports geek). Of note is that in this definition, there is no reference to being socially inept in the slightest.
“Geek chic” refers to the embracing of stereotypically “geek” characteristics including black-rimmed glasses, T-shirts with geek in-jokes, and more technically complex accessories.
There are multiple interpretations of the term “geek chic”, with heavy black-rimmed glasses being the sole defining trait as far as the press is concerned. Wearing them is sufficiently notable to have celebrities like David Beckham, Justin Timberlake and Myleene Klass being reported as “trying geek chic”. David Tennant, the Tenth Doctor in Doctor Who, has also described the look of his bespectacled character as having “a bit of geek chic”.
To geeks themselves, the term is used for “reclaiming the geek identity as something not only meaningful, but also stylish.” – for this usage, more than mere spectacle frames are required, and so the term has a wider remit, being applied to home furnishings and objects as well as oufits. In this usage, the term “geek chic” can even be used as a positive contrast to the somewhat more negative term “geeky”.
Geek chic is not to be confused with preppie fashion, which is more widely associated with a conservative image rather than geek culture. Instead, much of the geek chic image borrows from various alternative youth fashions such as goth, hippie, and bohemian among others, but t-shirts with geeky in-jokes seem to originate from the geeks themselves, with shirt designers who tailor to geeks offering rewards for the best ideas.