Musings on the word ‘geek’

A ‘geek’ used to describe someone unfashionably intelligent, or ‘un-cool’ – not far off the definition of ‘nerd’. Bullies used to say it at my school as a jibe – a kind of amalgamation of ‘teacher’s pet’ and ‘loner’. Whoever it was aimed at, it was always a negative and offensive way to describe them.

More recently, being a geek simply means being knowledgeable or very interested in a certain subject – be it a type of technology, film series, book franchise – usually at quite an in-depth level. Though still a bit tongue-in-cheek, it’s shed its unfavourable connotations and even gone so far as becoming a term of endearment. Gone are the days when ‘computer enthusiast’ conjured an image of a mysterious underworld where only the nerdiest, weirdest spectacled beings sit in dark rooms and sniffle at the keyboard. It’s now cool to be into things like programming, for example – especially since the growth of digital media and video games. Who wouldn’t want to be associated with those?

So, great, the weirdos are now understood and have a respected place in society, and everyone can move on and be happy. But I can’t help feel this is one of those occasions where negative culture ricochets too far in the opposite direction. The word ‘geek’ is flung around so much that its become a bit meaningless. Far from the original definition, now everyone who has a slight interest in something slightly niche is one. And today it’s cool to be a geek. So many people are self-proclaimed geeks, proud of their niche interest and expertise.

I guess there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with that – and for the record I don’t mind being referred to as one, in the right context. But I liked it when it was more of a rarity. It was a more subtle time. These days people like to label themselves, and let’s face it, sometimes it’s inaccurate. Suddenly playing mahjong or watching Game of Thrones makes you a geek. If you have a really in-depth knowledge of the history of mahjong, or say, the different types of wood used in GoT scenery, then sure, but just being a fan of something does not a geek make.

Not to quash the progress we’ve made in equality, but whenever I see someone declaring themselves as a ‘geeky girl’ it kind of makes me cringe. For a start, it shouldn’t, and doesn’t, matter that you’re female. You can be a geek regardless of your gender. You don’t need to specify, and by doing so it sounds like you’re making a point of the fact that you’re a girl, like that’s somehow unexpected, or a novelty. It’s not; it’s 2020.

Another phrase that had me involuntarily lifting my pelvic floor last year: ‘CALLING ALL NERDS AND NERDETTES!’ Why? Why quantify it with a gender? Why is there a distinction – can’t we all just be ‘nerds’? It’s all a bit cutesy and patronising. Women have spent a long time getting people to call them ‘actors’, ‘waiters’ and ‘tie fighters’ (sorry, ‘firefighters’).

I’ve slightly digressed from my original point which is that ‘geek’ is becoming a little overused. It’s like a lot of cultural changes – the fun part is the transition, when people begin taking ownership of a derogative word and it slowly transforms into a positive one. “He’s a bit of a geek.” “There’s nothing wrong with being a geek! He’s really smart.” It’s really great when that happens. It means people’s attitudes are changing for the better, and we’re moving forward.

So isn’t it a bit of a redundant term now? I’m hoping that in time it won’t be used at all, and people will happily refer to one another’s specific interests instead. But there are always new terms cropping up to single people out, and so the process repeats, and the whole thing will come full circle and someone else will be writing a blog post about how irritating it all is.

3 thoughts on “Musings on the word ‘geek’

  1. I love this kind of analyzing you fondly call nitpicking. I also find wordsmithing and grammar policing kind of fun – does that make me a word geek? Should I claim such?
    I have pondered the geek-nerd dichotomy before. There’s also the geek-dork paradigm.
    Identity is a big deal. Geek going mainstream validates many people, which in turn further elevates the term geek.
    I still think there is a little “weird” connotation to the term and thus like it. To me, geek still has value. I still find it hard to distinguish from the term nerd though.
    Thanks for this great article! I hope to read more.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, it’s nice to know there are fellow words people out there! Oh wow, I hadn’t thought about ‘dork’…

      I know what you mean about ‘geek’ still having some meaningful connotations, and for want of a better word I still use it sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

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