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geek glasses

How has the meaning of ‘geek’ changed over time?

Geek has seen an interesting transformation in meaning over the last couple of decades. The word used to be a cruel and critical label attached to clever, but socially awkward, people – such as computer or science geeks. The origin of this sense of the word can be traced back to the late nineteenth century, and comes from the (now obsolete) English dialect word geck (meaning ‘mad or foolish person’), which is related to the Dutch word gek, meaning ‘mad’ or ‘silly’.

Then, in the 1990s, everything changed. The computer industry helped many geeks to achieve great success, and the wider perception of geeks began to shift. Being a geek was suddenly a positive thing, suggesting an admirable level of knowledge, expertise, and passion: geeks could do ‘cool stuff’. It’s now common for people to be self-proclaimed or self-confessed geeks, with geekiness no longer confined to the world of science and technology, as these real English examples from the Oxford English Corpus show:

… a music geek with an awesome vinyl collection…
It was edgy and over-the-top, with enough random cinematic references to keep even the most knowledgeable film geek happy.

Nerds have undergone a similar change of image, but to a lesser extent, with some negative terms such as boring and pathetic still commonly attached to the word, as these examples (again from the wonderful Oxford English Corpus) show:

The surprising thing is that he is not a boring nerd; he’s got a wonderful sense of humor and he loves to dance.
The play is about a timid nerd who discovers a strange plant that can make any Joe Soap really famous.

So while those poor nerds still have to languish in relative ignobility, the geeks of the world can bask happily in their geekiness (and in the soft glow of their computer screens on their faces) …

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