What is the History of the Word Geek?

The word “geek” is a slang term that is originally used to describe eccentric or non-mainstream people, just like the word “nerd.” But at the present time, the word usually implies an expert on enthusiast that is obsessed with a hobby or intellectual pursuit. Before, geeks had a generally derogatory meaning of a strange person, especially one who is perceived to be very intellectual, boring, unfashionable, or socially awkward. But when the 21st century came, the term was reclaimed and used by a lot of people, especially members of some fandom, as a positive description. 

There are people who use the term “geek” self-referentially without malice or as a source of pride. For them, it is simply referring to a person who is very interested in a subject, usually complex or intellectual, for its own sake. The term is also used interchangeably with nerd and dweeb. If you usually hear or use the word geek, have you ever wondered where it came from or how it started? If you are also curious, read on as we’re giving you the history of the word geek. 

Geek Etymology and History

a geeky person holding a laptop

The word “geek” comes from the English dialect geek or geck, which means a fool or freak, and as well as from Middle Low German Geck. The word geck is a standard term in modern German, which means fool or fop. The term also survives in the Dutch and Afrikaans adjective gek, which means crazy, and as well as some German dialects such as the Alsatian word Gickeleshut, which pertains to a jester’s hat that is used during carnival. 

Back in the 19th century North America, the term “geek” pertained to a performer in a geek show in a circus. Geek shows were an act in traveling carnivals and circuses back in early America, and it is usually part of a larger sideshow. The 1976 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary listed the word geek with its definition only regarding geek shows. Essentially, a geek was a socially undesirable person who lacked any skill or ability, and that the only thing he could do at a carnival to entice an audience was to bite off the heads of live animals. 

The variation of the word geek was used to comic effect in television shows in the 1970s, such as Starsky and Hutch and Sanford & Son. In one of the episodes of Starsky and Hutch back in 1976, it stated that a geek is a freak in a circus sideshow which is kept in a pit where they throw snakes and chicken heads at. He then runs around crazy and gobbles them up. In that episode, the characters said that they read that in an unreliable book. 

The term continued to retain its original connotations of undesirable behaviors and traits until the late 20th century, when its meaning became more fluid in nature. During this time, the terms geek and nerd became interchangeable. The last few decades have seen associations with geeks and nerds trending a more positive description about people. 

At the present time, geeks are more generally described as more community-oriented people who are likely to engage in fan behavior, such as collecting memorabilia and being interested in trends. Geeks are now considered desirable for their expertise and enthusiasm for even obscure topics compared to in the past. Today, being a geek is largely determined by personal preference and not via a hard set of characteristics. There is also no need to bite off the heads of any animals to be called a geek.

Impact of Geeks on Society

a geek guy smiling

Though geeks used to be bullied and discriminated against back then, at the present time, specifically technological oriented geeks, now exert a powerful influence over the global economy and society. The previous generations of geeks used to work in research departments, laboratories, and support functions. Today, most of them occupy senior corporate positions and exercise significant profitable and political influence. One example of a very powerful technology geek today is the Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. 

According to Mark Roeder, the author of the book “Unnatural Selection: Why The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth,” the rise of geeks represents a new phase of human evolution. It’s because today, people with geek-like traits, many of whom are on the autism spectrum, dyslexia, or ADHD, can now resonate with the new technological zeitgeist and become very successful. 

Even though geeks did not have an easy time at school as they are mocked by jocks and don’t get invited to parties, these days, they can become more successful in the real world. We hope this article helped you learn more about the history of the word geek.