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Story Behind The Word

November 22, 2009

I’ve used the word geek like a zillion times and probably you have too. I was curious how it all started and what it actually means today. So, I thought it’d be great to do a little research on why “geek” is what it is now.

A majority of web definitions suggests that “geek” dates back to the 19th century.

The most popular and interesting definition that I found was a carnival slang. Geeks were carnival performers who would bite heads off live chickens as part of a show.

Imagine being able to do that! Some even add that geeks ate glass and live mice. Gradually, the word was applied to anyone who did bizarre tasks. The bottom line:  you’d be a geek if you do anything for a living – anything that’s considered odd and disgusting by the society.

But the word only became a popular term through William Gresham’s 1946 novel, “Nightmare Alley”. The novel told a story of carnival life; it was later made into a film starring Tyrone Power.

Geek was then finally adopted by the technical community – maybe computer programming was/is still considered a weird job and calling programmers geek made sense. But by 1990, geeks had won over many with their success from the dot-com bubble; and turned into a fashionable term. And while geek might still not be a cool term for kids, parents seem to have developed a strong liking. A few weeks ago, my colleague told me how she wants her children to be geeks, and with the following that geek dad ( has, you can sense that quite a number of parents are eager to raise geek children.

Apparently, you don’t have to be a computer freak to be called a geek. If you are overly obsessed with something that is beyond normal social acceptance, you are a geek. You could be a history geek,  a video game geek, a comic book geek and so forth… I find this confusing though. If you are obsessed with fashion, could you be a fashion geek? Now maybe fashion does not get classified as not mainstream. But my geek is a tech geek so it makes things easier for me. I am going to keep this blog mainly focused on his obsession with programming and technology. I could also say he is a finance geek given his obsession with stocks. His interest for finance kind of sky rocketed after Lehman & WAMU fell last year and he’s been on his toes checking stocks and researching like crazy everyday. He’s convinced a few of his friends to invest in certain companies too, with reasons backed up by his pretty convincing arguments. I wasn’t too happy to see the ups and downs in our monthly finance charts but that’s a whole different story.
Here’s my  favorite definition of a geek  from the urban dictionary, I am pretty confident it was defined by a geek.
Geek: The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult
2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 22, 2009 9:49 pm

    I think the “geeki-ness” matures over time and I have become “geeki-er” over time. My definition of geek would be a person who tries to find weird ways to make everyday things work (mind you those things already work, but geek tends to make it work in another way… and mostly end up breaking things – which is kind of a thrill). Geeks tend to be semi or fully anti-social… well I think I am semi social.

    I have definitely become more geekier in recent years, aka a programming freak.

  2. americanepali permalink
    November 23, 2009 9:36 am

    I couldn’t fix a computer (or do a math problem) to save my life… it’s ironic that I now work at an engineering school. The students tell calculus jokes and I have no idea what they are talking about or why the joke is funny. Help! I’m surrounded by geeks!

    My favorite pass time is reading… so I guess that makes me more of a nerd 😉

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