Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Geek: from freak to chic

The word "freak" in the title is used in a specific sense. In the earlier part of the 20th century, a "geek" was a freak attraction at a carnival, a definition  that http://www.answers.com/topic/geek retains, though it does first offer the slang meaning more familiar to us today, someone who is inept, particularly in social settings, though s/he may be very accomplished technically or scientifically.

If you ever read the book or  see the 1947 film adaption  Nightmare Alley, you would encounter the term "geek" in its carnival sense and a symbol of the ultimate degradation a man can experience. (BTW this proves the Oxford  Dictionary of Modern Slang entry on the word incorrect, as it dates the US meaning of "fairground freak" only to 1954)

Houghton Mifflin Word Origins can only speculate on when exactly the meaning shifted away from the freak people paid to see to a person some may have tried to avoid:
The exact date is hard to pin down, but in student slang of the 1970s and later, a geek was someone who partied too little and studied too much. And when these geeks migrated to Silicon Valley and began building computers and writing software programs that made them millionaires, they gained respect.

http://geekcrafts.com/geek-glasses-roundup/ artlife on Etsy sells these 

And that turn around brings us to pride in self-identifying as geeks and the ultimate compliment paid to the type in  the form of "geek chic"
Although being described as a geek tends to be an insult, the term has recently become more complimentary, or even a badge of honor, within particular fields. This is particularly evident in the technical disciplines, where the term is now often a compliment, denoting extraordinary skill. Geek Pride Day has been observed on May 25 in Spain since 2006 (May 25 being the world premiere date of Star Wars and also Towel Day). The holiday promotes the right to be nerdy or geeky, and to express it in public without shame. A new convention, Geek.Kon, has sprung up in Madison, Wisconsin with a purpose to celebrate all things geek. The website BoardGameGeek is an online community of boardgamers who identify themselves as geeks at game conventions; they call their website "The Geek," for short. Technical support services such as Geek Squad use the term geek to signify helpful technical abilities. In recent history, some geeks have cultivated a geek culture, such as geek humor and obscure references on t-shirts. The so-called geek chic trend is a deliberate affectation of geek or nerd traits as a fashion statement. Nonetheless, the derogatory definition of geeks remains that of a person engrossed in his area of interest at the cost of social skills, personal hygiene, and status.

Related post: http://writewaypro.blogspot.com/2012/02/vintage-vocabulary.html