The word geek is one that has had several meanings over the centuries, including meaning both a fool and a very smart person. How did we acquire the word geek and how did it come to mean such a variety of things?
The modern word geek is most likely a northern English variant of an older word, geck, meaning a simpleton or one who is deceived. It can also be verb, meaning to deceive, to cheat. It’s a borrowing into English from the Lower German geck and is related to the Middle Dutch gec. From Alexander Barclay’s Certayne Eglogues of 1515:
Aiijb, He is a foole, a sotte, and a geke also Which choseth...the worst [way] and most of ieoperdie.
Shakespeare also used the word geck on at least two occasions. In Twelfth Night (V.i.) from 1601:
Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by a priest,
And made the most notorious gecke and gull
That e’er invention play’d on? Tell me why!
And in the 1616 work Cymbeline he uses the spelling geeke, but this is likely to be a transcription error and geck and the intended word, (V.v.):
To taint his nobler heart & brain
With needless jealousy,
And to become the geeke and scorn
O’ th’ other’s villainy.1
Towards the end of the 19th century, the modern variant geek appears in the north of England with the meaning of a foolish or worthless person. From Francis K. Robinson’s 1876 A Glossary of Words Used in the Neighborhood of Whitby:
Gawk, Geek, Gowk or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.
By the beginning of the 20th century, geek had crossed the Atlantic to America, where it took up residence in wider slang. From the comic strip A. Mutt (shortly afterward to become Mutt & Jeff) by H.C. Fisher appearing in the San Francisco Examiner of 28 April 1908:
A geek who spends his spare time making Czar removers was slammed into the city cooler.
In America, the word also acquired a very specialized sense, that of a circus or carnival performer who engaged in outrageous acts on stage, such as biting the heads off live animals. From Billboard (Cincinnati) 25 October 1919:
At Liberty—Snake charmer or geek man; would like to join show going south.
By the middle of the 20th century, the term had lost any specific meaning in general slang use, being used simply as a disparaging label. At this time, it began to be applied to overly diligent students. From a letter by Jack Kerouac, 1 October 1957:
Unbelievable number of events almost impossible to remember, including...Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students and big geek questions to answer.
The Kerouac quotation is something of an outlier, appearing much earlier than most of the other citations. Geek really came into its own in collegiate slang of the mid-1970s.
And by the 1980s was being used to refer to aficionados of computers and other high-tech gadgetry, and it started losing some of its negative associations. From the Usenet group net.jokes of 20 February 1984:
I was a lonely young computer geek With [sic] a program due ‘most every week.2
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton