The Origin of the Geek

December 1, 2014 – Culture

I’m sure that if you’re watching American Horror Story this season, you’re already familiar with the small scrawny figure of the Freak Show’s resident Geek. The Geek’s job was to bite the heads off live chickens and eat them and they were a staple in any self-respecting Freak Show. But watching the television show got me wondering; when did the word ‘Geek’ stop meaning live chicken-eater, à la Ozzy Osbourne, and start referring to the person who probably has waaaay too much knowledge about obscure comics and tends to be pretty savvy with a PC? Because it was still associated with Freak Show performers as recently as the 1970’s. In fact, ‘Geek’ as we know it is a relatively new concept. It was only around 1983 that it came to refer to people who lacked social graces and were obsessed with technology. But this isn’t the whole story of this word.

The word seems to have come from an old Germanic word meaning fool, along with a Dutch one meaning crazy. Back in the 18th century the word ‘Gecken’ first appeared describing any sideshow freak. I haven’t gone into any real detail on this because I’m fully aware that I may be the only person who finds this kind of thing interesting; but if you do happen to enjoy the etymology and evolution of words, I have popped a little timeline below.

So far, you can see where the concept of how a foolish crazy person could end up referring to the person who ends up being a sideshow in a carnival. But the jump from crazy to Bill Gates in less than twenty years in usage is still a mystery to me. 500 years from a German village idiot to a live chicken-eater makes sense. Chicken-eater to technophile, less so.

So I decided to look it up and find out, the Origin of Geek.

And I found out nothing.

Seriously – I could not find a single actual explanation as to why, in the space of about 13 years, the word’s meaning made this massive leap.

I once read somebody describe being a geek as somebody who was willing to forgo popularity and being included because they liked something so much. (The ‘willing’ has me raising an eyebrow here, but I digress) But maybe they were on to something. There was a time when being called a geek was a proper insult, a bit like that part in Clueless when Cher is called a virgin who can’t drive. If being a geek in the 80’s and 90’s made you a social outcast, maybe it wouldn’t have felt completely dissimilar to the social exclusion that most Freak Show performers would have experienced.

the origin of the geek_ 2

Or maybe I’m grasping at straws, trying to create a connection between the two things when the only thing they have in common is a word. If anyone does happen to know what the connection is, if there is one, can you please let me know? Seriously. It’s kind of bugging me now and I’ll send you chocolate if you can give me an actual answer.

 Geeky Timeline

 1510’s – Germanic word used to describe a fool or a simpleton

1700’s – ‘Gecken’ referred to freaks in some circus sideshows in Austria-Hungary

1916 – Used to describe any sideshow freak

1940’s – Willian Lindsay Gresham’s novel ‘Nightmare Alley’, uses ‘geek’ to describe a wildman sideshow performer

1970 – Writer Arthur H.Lewis uses ‘geek’ to describe a performer who bites off the heads of chickens or rats

1983 – used in teen slang in the United States in reference to peers who lacked social graces and were obsessed with technology


Words: Fake Geek Girl