My father told me that in carnivals of old a “geek” was a performer who would bite the heads off chickens. To discover whether that was true, I decided to research the origin of the word for myself.
It turns out he was right. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a geek was a carnival worker who was so unskilled that biting heads off live animals was all they could do to entertain an audience. Essentially, a geek was an undesirable person without any skills or abilities.
Nowadays, while it still retains a bit of that negative connotation, geek is more of a social preference. Far from being unskilled or undesirable, geeks tend to be “fanboys” or “fangirls” for various forms of media who often form communities based on their shared interests. How did that happen?
For more information, I followed the history explained by the great Geek Anthropologist blog. In the 1510’s, geck was a low German term meaning “simpleton or fool.” The word is derived from a North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian verb that means “to croak or cackle” and “to mock or cheat.” In the 1700’s, the word “gecken” was used in reference some freaks in circus shows in the Austria-Hungary area. It was only in the early 19th century that the Scottish word “geck” which also meant “fool” was used to describe the notorious carnies.
The word as we know it today became more popular because of William Lindsay Gresham’s 1946 novel Nightmare Alley. In the novel, the wild men of the circus sideshows are described as “geeks.” The word soon became synonymous with freak, meaning here anyone who exhibits any physical trait that was outside of what society considered normal. It became a word that designated “a sense of social stigma and shame.”
That’s where things get interesting. The circus performers and sideshow freaks soon began to refer to themselves as “geeks” as a collective positive identity in opposition to the normal people in their audience and of the world. These geeks took pride in being a community set aside by others for their “physical difference, as well as social taboos and codes of morality at the time,” setting a historical precedent of pride and nonconformity for future geeks such as myself.
Then who was considered a geek changed over time. The word extended to computer users in the 1960’s and to peers who lacked social skills and were obsessed with technology or to peers knowledgeable about various topics ranging from computers to comic books in the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Over time, these geeks have been tormented for their bizarre interests and their non-conformity, but oh, how the tables have turned. These geeks have created technology most of the normal people can’t live without and have made billions creating movies about those odd media no one ever thought were cool.
One can safely say that geeks now rule the world, and we have those sideshow carnies to thank.