The transformation of the word geek

In Liar’s Poker, his 1989 seminal account of trading, Michael Lewis has a chapter called “From Geek to Man.” Here’s what he says about “geeks”: “A geek is a circus performer who bites the heads off live chickens and snakes. Or so says the red American Heritage Dictionary.” When Lewis arrived at Salomon Brothers in London, “a trader told me that a geek was both (a) ‘any person who sucks farts from swans’ and (b) ‘a person immediately out of the training program and in a disgusting larval state between trainee and man.’ I, he said, was a geek.”

The circus performer definition was, indeed, the only one in American Heritage for some time. But now, that definition is No. 2 in the “geek” entry, meaning less common, and these are No. 1:

“A person regarded as foolish, inept, or clumsy”; “A person who is single-minded or accomplished in scientific or technical pursuits but is felt to be socially inept.”

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That’s still negative. So then why does Best Buy proudly advertise its “Geek Squad” service, sending those people to your home to fix your electronics?

One way to blunt the hurt of an insult is for the target to co-opt it, embrace it, neutralize it, use it in a positive or self-identifying way. We saw that happen with “Obamacare,” which began as a pejorative way to refer to the Affordable Care Act, but has become increasingly neutral, as supporters and news reports have adopted it. (The Associated Press, which has advised putting “Obamacare” in quotations because of its slang nature and negative beginnings, says it is reconsidering its policy.)

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But back to “geeks.” The Oxford English Dictionary calls its history “chiefly US,” with this first citation from an 1876 glossary: “Gawk, Geek, Gowk or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.” In 1957, the OED says, Jack Kerouac introduced the “deprecative” concept of a “geek” as “An overly diligent, unsociable student; any unsociable person obsessively devoted to a particular pursuit.” And the association with computers and other electronics emerged around 1983, in an early Usenet newsgroup.

About that circus performer explanation that Michael Lewis cited: that, too, is chiefly American, the OED says, tracing it to 1919. Dictionaries generally believe it to be an alteration of the word “geck,” or “fool,” from Middle or Low German. The Salomon Brothers traders seem to have come up with those other descriptions on their own, though they fit into “geek’s” negative origins.

Between 1980 and 1990, according to Nexis, nearly all the 700 or so citations for “geek” were negative, describing undesirable people or traits. Some explain what the term “geek” meant, indicating it was still relatively new. Between 1990 and 2000, the use of “geek” exploded along with the personal computer market. (Bill Gates was often called the “ultimate geek,” meant as a compliment.) This Google Ngram traces the explosion simultaneously in books, though there’s no context for how “geek” was used:

Keep in mind that “geek” can still be an insult, depending on the target and context. Using it to refer to oneself or to someone you know embraces the label is always the safest way to avoid unintended pain.

The transformation of “geek” from an insult to a neutral or proud self-label, albeit still considered slang, can be traced more through its use as a verb than as a noun. To “geek” or “geek out” traces to the US in 1935, the OED says, to mean “To give up, to back down; to lose one’s nerve.” “To geek” in a circus, or particularly to bite the head off an animal (we’re looking at you, Ozzy Osbourne) showed up around 1946, long after the noun form. Things sped up with the arrival of computers: To “geek up” in 1984 meant “To excite or stimulate (a person); to make (a person) nervous or jittery”; to “geek out” showed up in 1992 to mean “To behave like a geek; esp. (in Computing) to engage (esp. temporarily and inappropriately) in technical discussions, perform a technically complicated task, etc.” (All from the OED.) And now, to bring it full circle, the American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb “geek” as “To excite emotionally: I’m geeked about that new video game.

You can also see the mainstreaming of “geek” in Webster’s New World College Dictionary, the one the AP and many news organizations follow. It lists definitions in historical order: The first one for “geeks” is the carnival performer; then comes “any person considered to be different from others in a negative or bizarre way,” and finally, “a person regarded as being especially enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and skillful, esp. in technical matters.”

Not even a hint of a pocket-protector in that last one.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.