Saturday, December 01, 2007

The Beauty of Geeks

A couple of years back, when my wife was teaching third and fourth graders, one of her students accused another youngster of referring to him as "gay." When confronted about the matter, the accused made the case that he was simply commenting on his classmates' state of happiness.

Aside from the intrinsic humor in this anecdote, it is also illustrative of how the knowledge of a now defunct denotation of a certain word endures even to a generation that literally has no first-hand memory of anything of the 20th Century. I'm sure there is no shortage of words in circulation today that have sharp deviations from their original etymology, but this particular term has had such a radical shift in meaning in such a short amount of time, and has the added weight of carrying heavy such political and cultural signification, that both definitions are seemingly embedded in our cultural DNA.

Yet there is another word that has, in the same or even less amount of time, undergone just as marked of a change, with significantly less overt recognition. As of the mid-1970s, or less than one generation ago, the word "geek" was defined in dictionaries as "one who bites the heads off of chickens at carnivals." By the mid-1980s, when I was in elementary school, I knew the word as a derogatory term synonymous with "nerd." (I became aware of the original definition of the word through a Nintendo Jeopardy game in the early 1990s.) By the mid-1990s, I came to associate the word "geek" with one who has esoteric knowledge about non-academic subject matter (as opposed to nerds, who I regarded as possessing specialized knowledge in academic subjects). The Wikipedia page offers many definitions of the term, most of which are compatible with my previous definitions.

While I think the circus/carnival origin of the term "geek" is fairly well known, I get the sense that it is far from universally known, and I'd be surprised to hear of a third grader who would offer a similar etymological defence as the one cited above. In other words, the shift in meaning of the word "geek" was even more sudden and is even more complete than the shift of the word "gay."

This raises the question not only of how the change happened, but why it happened. Necessity being the mother of invention, it makes sense that the rise of the information age would give rise to the need for some kind of term to describe emergent subcultures of people devoted to the suddenly burgeoning and splintering realms of pop culture. Though professional sports have been around in America for more than a century, was it possible to be a "sports geek" before the existence of ESPN, which started in 1979? Though motion pictures had been around for decades, could one be a "[insert genre] movie geek" before the VCR hit the mass market in the late 70s?

But even though a term may have been needed at that time in history, why did it have to be a term that was previously used to describe sideshow freaks? I'm not sure it's even possible to answer that question, but I (naturally) have a theory. There must have been a tremendous amount of ambivalence for those original geeks (from the human spectators, if not the poultry, who likely had one reaction). They were likely regarded with a mixture of esteem, envy, revulsion, and fear. They were likely esteemed because of the specialized skill they exhibited. Not everyone can bite the heads off of chickens. They were likely envied because, well, anyone who can command a spotlight has always been envied, even if they command attention for the most dubious of reasons (and I doubt that this is peculiar to our reality TV show era). They would have been reviled for obvious reasons, and they would have inspired fear in that they held up a mirror to humanity and exposed the barbarism that still resides in the human breast.

The question I pose is this: in the Trekkie, the sports nut, the comic book guy, the computer technician, the cinephile, etc, do we simultaneously celebrate and loathe them? Do we esteem, envy, revile, and fear them? If the answer is yes, I would posit that we can explain how the word "geek" has transferred denotations so effortlessly.


Blogger Beth said...

I never knew that was the dictionary definition for geek. I even looked it up on my little dictionary thing that my Mac has and it said almost the same thing. I thought that was kind of funny. Also there is a really stupid song out called "Man it's cool to be a geek", I think that's the name anyway. It's really an annoying song. The things people come up with nowadays.

8:43 PM  
Blogger wagknar said...

You make a good point but the word geek much like most songs the radio gets ahold of is overplayed, meaning it's potency is used up. Mabye I am just a bad person but if I were attempting to hurt someones feelings Geek, or comic book guy, or even gay, would not be the first words up to the plate. They wouldn't even be on deck People call each other much worse often accompanied by curse words such as the ever popular F bomb. It almost seems that for someone to pay attention you really have to play to the shock factor. I think another factor would be how well you know the person. For instance I have a friend that is gay and if him and I are having a discussion and I refered to something as being "gay" he would not take offense. Now saying that to a gay person I did not know may be considered bad form.

10:19 PM  
Blogger Shannon said...

Hey Azor,
I am sure you don't remember me. I was surprised to still see your blog going. I was a student in one of your classes a couple years back and came across my old blog. Just thought I'd give a shout and say even though I only stayed in college for a month and a half, missing your class really made me regeret leaving!
I wonder if you ever remember (or even know) what happened to Grandma Barb?

1:21 PM  

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