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What’s in a Geek?

By Shamus
on Tuesday Aug 1, 2006
Filed under:
Nerd Culture


The tagline on this site claims “Geek culture ephemera”, but obviously there are many aspects of geek culture I don’t cover. I really only concern myself with a little corner of the subject. It’s just too broad, and any blog that really tried to write about all aspects of geek culture would be too unfocused. The world of geekdom is larger and more inclusive now than it was twenty years ago. Part of this is likely due to the fact that the term “geek” hs changed a great deal.

The original geek was a carnival performer whose act consisted of bizarre or grotesque feats, like biting the heads off of chickens. The term was roughly analogous to the term “freak” as we use it today. It was often used as a cruel slur to denote someone who was socially inept, repulsive, or otherwise unlikeable. From there the term lost some of its “freak” overtones and came to mean people who were simply social outcasts. Then it came to mean a very particular type of outcast: someone who avoids or shuns others because they are too busy with a cerebral or esoteric pursuit. Now geek is a label applied to many differing types of people who have no other common thread besides their interest in using their brains to amuse themselves. The “outcast” meaning is all but gone, and all that’s left is the stereotype that geeks have trouble dealing with the opposite sex.

Geekdom, once perceived as monolithic, is quite diverse:

  1. First you have the inventors and mathematicians: MIT engineers trying to build robots out of paperclips and Macramé. Guys with slide rules and pocket protectors. Pretty much everyone involved with the Apollo program who was not an astronaut.
  2. You also have the hobby geeks: D&D players. Guys sitting around the food court at the mall playing Magic: The Gathering. Guys who hang around the comic book store so much that they are often mistaken for employees.
  3. Then there is my group: The coding geeks. Various types of programmers. Hackers and crackers. Graphics engine authors. Open source kernel hackers. People who come up with compression systems or hang around IRC coming up with new ways to humiliate the RIAA by breaking some encryption scheme before it even hits the shelves. Game mod developers. You could actually break this group down into a dozen or so distinct groups, but let’s just move on…
  4. The Otaku. I think we should be pretty familiar with this sort of geek by now. This ranges from mild fans who watch a little (like myself) to people who go all-out and learn Japanese, %cosplay, and watch the latest fansubs hot off Bittorrent.
  5. Medieval geeks. These geeks spend time wearing armor, crafting swords, wearing medieval clothing, and maybe even building a trebuchet.
  6. All the others I am forgetting. I’m sure you’ll remind me.

What I find interesting is that for the most part a lot of these groups have nothing to do with each other, aside from the fact that they are all called geeks.

The problem is that the term geek is now arguably a compliment, and being socially awkward but technically capable is now accepable. This means a lot more people are willing to call themselves geeks, and so the term geek is expanding to include all sorts of people. I think we’re even getting to the point where some geeks are just posers. More than once I’ve heard a famous musician / actor / athlete try to pass themselves off as a geek because they happen to play Playstation once in a while. Rob Zombie is the only one I can name off the top of my head, but I know there are plenty of others.

I find this facinating because geek is a term that began as an insult, and ended as a simple label like “jock” or “socialite”. It’s a positive label that people desire to apply to themselves.

So what is a geek? I tossed out a quasi-definition above: A person who uses their brains to amuse themselves. That’s really broad and would likely include all sorts of people that are clearly not geeks, but I’m having trouble coming up with a good definition. Dictionary.com has one, but it doesn’t really match the useage we see today.

Here I am, claiming I write about something which I cannot even define to my own satisfaction. So let’s hear it: If you were to put geek in the dictionary, what would the entry say?

Comments (14)

  1. novas0x2a says:

    geek (n):
    1) Someone who laughed at this recursion base case.
    2) Someone who doesn’t have to look up “geek” in the dictionary to know they are one.

  2. Evil Otto says:

    Does it count if I play D&D *and* bite the heads of chickens?

  3. Shamus says:

    Bah. Nevermind. I’ll just use my own definition:

    geek (n) – A label applied to Shamus Young

    The rest of you are just posers. :)

  4. Dan says:

    Don’t forget about the geeks who turn gothic, but are still geeks. coughJoshportcough*
    This one kid I worked with at The BK lounge, was this tiny very fraile electro genius geek to the max of all maxed out extremes. And his name was Buzz of all things. He goes off to college and in three months he transformed into this drab looking kid with long dark hair and painted nails. He looked awful, but if you talked to him he was still the same old Buzz. We didn’t get along well at all.

  5. I was a geek before you were born.

  6. ubu roi says:

    Uphill in the snow, both ways?

  7. DVS says:

    I would refine your definition to exclude non-geeks who also enjoy intellectual amusement, such as the general cetegories of poets, writers, theologians, philosophers.

    geek (n):
    A person who entertains himself/herself primarily through the communal creation of or participation in one or more fictional settings. The settings used may be intended for future reality (inventors, programmers, etc.) or may simply be established for amusement (gamers, otaku, etc.). Community may be small (a three-person RPG group) or large (sourceforge), but must be more than the individual alone.

  8. Shamus says:

    I was a geek before you were born.

    One-uppsmanship… it’s part of the geek genetic makeup.

  9. Ellie says:

    ah, but you missed an important (at least to me…) category of geekdom: the scifi geek. one who watches/reads/etc. scifi shows/reading material/etc. that are considered “not cool”. or something along those lines. that and video game geeks.

    I guess it all depends on your definition of ‘geek’ though.

  10. Cate says:

    I second the sci-fi geek and also add the fantasy geek. Though D&D is fantasy it is in the hobbie geek section and just like for sci-fi geeks, fantasy geeks love books and movies and such of the fantasy genre. And there’s the band geek. It is sometime refered to as band nerd, but I prefer band geek.

  11. Zane says:

    What I find interesting is that, as you said, for the most part a lot of these groups have nothing to do with each other; however, most geeks are in many of thse groups. For example: just using the categorys listed here, I would be a multi-class coder/hobby(rpg)/sci. fi. geek.

  12. Alsee says:

    There is a psychological test called the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator that pretty well pins down the Geek personality type. You can find many free self-tests for it on the internet and many pages explaining it and discussing the various personality types and thinking styles people may have.

    The test breaks down with four scales:
    Introvert-Extrovert scale,
    Sensing-iNtuition scale,
    Thinking-Feeling scale, and
    Judging-Perceiving scale.

    A personality type is written out as a group of four letters. one for each scale depending on how you scored. I or E for the first letter, then an S or N, then T or F, then J or P.

    Geeks can almost exactly be defined by the two groups INTP and INTJ. Geeks are Introverted, oriented more inwards and more inclined to solitary activities like reading than large group socializing. Geeks are more inclined to iNtuitive thinking, abstract concepts and the interactions between things (seeing the forest) rather than focusing on individual concrete things (seeing the trees) and sensory experience and physical manipulation. Geeks are more inclined to Thinking and logic, and less interested and less skilled in emotional matters.

    Geeks can be either J or P. J is better at achieving specific goals, in more organized and rigorous and planning oriented, potentially somewhat inflexibile. P is better at making the best of the unexpected, more spontaneous and flexible and adaptive, potentially somewhat erratic.

    INTP is the classic programmer personality type.
    INTJ is the classic scientist personality type.

    If one were to take a broad view of “Geekdom” one might choose to include ISTP’s, that would be the classic mechanic personality type – people who like to tinker on their cars and the like. I wouldn’t really include them though. Car and other mechanical types usually aren’t considered geekish – too physically oriented.

  13. Shamus says:

    I’m actually an INFp, for what it’s worth. I haven’t taken the test in about ten years though. It might be interesting to see if I’ve undergone any personality “drift”.

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