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Geek history

How ‘geek’ has changed over time

The development of the word geek tells us a lot about how geeks have been perceived culturally. It was first used in the late nineteenth century, as a generalized term for a person, particularly one who is foolish or offensive. It is related to the earlier noun geck, which derives from a Germanic word meaning mad or silly. This earlier form is used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, when Malvolio complains of having been made ‘the most notorious gecke and gull’.

From here, geek started to be applied specifically to unsociable, swotty students, or to any antisocial person with an obsessive interest. The Oxford English Dictionary’s current first evidence for this sense comes from Jack Kerouac in a letter of 1957: ‘Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students and big geek questions to answer.’ The step from this sense to that of a person particularly interested in and knowledgeable about computers was a short one, but whereas the earlier two senses were often (if not always) used negatively, the OED notes that the new technology-related sense is, ‘esp. when as a self-designation, not necessarily depreciative.’ The decades following the 1980s saw a rise in computer geeks, and with them came a claiming of the term geek as a badge of honour.

Bob Dylan at the circus

Incidentally, when Bob Dylan sang, in his Ballad of a Thin Man, about the hapless Mr Jones handing in his ticket to ‘go watch the geek’, he was referring to a carnival performer. Forty years before the obsessive students or computer technicians were designated as geeks, the word was being used as a name for a circus freak, whose show consisted of grotesque or bizarre acts such as biting the heads off live animals. At the moment, the earliest evidence for this sense of the word comes in 1919, when a ‘Snake charmer or geek man’ advertised in Cincinnati that he ‘would like to join show going south.’ So when Dylan’s geek asks poor old Mr Jones ‘How does it feel / To be such a freak?’, he’s making an ironic comment on the grotesquery that he sees in bourgeois culture. It is the clueless wide-eyed journalist who is out of place in the world of sword-swallowers, one-eyed midgets, and carnival freaks.

Geek or nerd?

So who are the modern-day geeks, exactly? Well, synonyms include words such as dork, freak, guru, misfit, nerd, techie, and weirdo – a mixed bag that seems to celebrate the technical skill of geeks whilst simultaneously suspecting them of lacking social ability, of not ‘fitting in’. As used by what we may, for simplicity, call “non-geeks”, the term is often something of an insult. Like dork, it is used to disparage people who are seen to be socially awkward; but dork doesn’t have the extra connotations of cleverness and skill. Nerd (which, like dork, has an uncertain etymology) is a better synonym in this respect. Indeed, a quick search online for the keywords geek and nerd will quickly show that there is a lot of debate about the differences between the two. Perhaps geeks are more technically-minded than nerds? Perhaps nerds are more socially awkward? Perhaps geeks have better dress sense? It seems that nerd is more likely to be associated with solitary, unfashionable people – anoraks, in a word – while geek has rather more cachet. But it’s generally a close-run race between the two, and there are plenty of characteristics that both geeks and nerds are generally acknowledged to share. Chief amongst these is the ability to become utterly fixated on a favourite interest.

Fangirls and fanboys

Adherents of particular films, comics, or operating systems are commonly labelled as fangirls and fanboys. According to current OED findings, these terms first appear in 1934 and 1919 respectively, and were originally applied in a general way to fans of anything, including sports and popular music. By now, though, their primary use is to describe those who enjoy geeking out about their areas of interest. Often, fanboy or fangirl are accusatory terms, used to suggest that someone is blindly supportive of the object of their interest regardless of its actual merits. It’s interesting to note, too, that fanboy/fangirl is an exception to the tendency to refer to adult women as “girls” and adult men simply as “men”; the geek obsessives, male or female, are all just kids at heart, or so the terminology would have us believe.

This is not to say that geekery is gender-neutral, however. Take the recent meme of the “fake geek girl”, supposedly a woman who feigns geekiness in order to attract male geeks, only to play with their emotions and break their hearts. There’s a prevalent assumption that men are more naturally geeky than women, who cannot really be interested in the traditionally male interests of computers and science fiction. There are plenty of webpages explaining the pernicious sexism of the fake geek girl concept, but there are plenty of others which give surefire tips on how to spot this harpy of the hard-drives. She will only have seen the Star Wars prequels, for example. She thinks PC stands for “politically correct”. She thinks that nØØb is a typo.

Leetspeak ain’t for n00bs

But wait. If nØØb isn’t a typo, what is it? NØØb, short for newbie, is an insult thrown at someone who is inexperienced, or perceived to be so, particularly in the areas of computing and gaming. But why spell it with a couple of zeroes instead of the letter o? The answer takes us into the realm of leetspeak, or just leet, a way of writing that developed online and which uses numbers and other symbols to replace letters in the Roman alphabet. Leet is a contraction and respelling of elite, referring to the status of elite users of online services and helping to aggrandize leetspeakers as a group. Leet is itself often respelled as 1337, using leetspeak symbols for the letters l, e, and t. Leetspeak also has various word-formation conventions, such as the use of –z instead of –s as a plural suffix (skillz rather than skills), and use of the suffix –xor or –zor to form nouns often expressing excellence or largeness, such as haxxor (hacker, particularly a very good one), and stuffzors (stuff, especially a lot of stuff). Like many types of argot, leetspeak serves the purpose of separating those who understand and can use its conventions into an exclusive set. And because quite a bit of leet vocabulary is based on gaming, programming, and the in-jokes of online communities, joining in with some or all of these activities is a big advantage if you want to become fluent. Surprisingly enough, leet is a jargon that encourages community spirit.

There are many other tricks and rules of leetspeak, and hundreds of other aspects of geek culture that I could write about. But, in the best geeky tradition, I hope this has given you enough of a taste so that you can go out there to the interwebz and do some research of your own. Meanwhile, live long and prosper.

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