Every Word Counts: As Goes “Geek,” So Goes the Species

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gary s. whitfordThe evolution of the word “geek” may provide evidence of a gradual, but very positive turn in progressive human development.

As reported in The Rivard Report in December, "Geekdom (is) One Year Old and Best in Texas," and might be the best workspace in the city for independent creatives. Once a term of derision, “geek” has become a symbol of hep in half a century. In my humble opinion, the transition bodes well for conscious evolution.

Casting out and making fun of others

Geek began in the 1500s, meaning “fool.” In 19th century Austria-Hungry, “gechen” referred to circus performers who were foolish enough to bite off the head of a live chicken. Circuses and their odd sideshows gave valueless employment opportunities to people with natural deformities and/or a willingness to debase themselves for a few coins at a time. The fowl-biting fool was a regular part of American circus midways well into the 20th century.

In that respect, one could make a case that we have not evolved much at all. American intelligence has forged a global network capable of dispatching information at the speed of light. We use this excellent capability to send videos of funny cats and stupid humans in epic fails. No matter how involuntary, schadenfreude is still a chuckle at another's expense, derision where empathy might better serve.

“Geek” entered the 1950s representing an outcast. The mental picture yields a person who dressed funny and focused intently on odd and unpopular pursuits. Their passion for things like math and chess was so keen they may have neglected social development and a healthy interest in All-American sports like football. At least, that was the stereotype.

Along came Urkel

Steve UrkelSteve Urkel appeared on Family Matters as Laura’s first date. He was the manifestation of the cultural definition of “geek,” with thick eyeglasses, odd clothing, a high, squeaky voice and arcane intelligence. He was obnoxious and clumsy, but sweet. Originally written as a single-episode character, Urkel was so comedic and popular, he became part of the regular cast by the end of the season.

Urkel came along at the same time computer technology was developing. Based in math, computer programming attracted the kids we called “geeks” in high school. As computers worked their way from large buildings on universities to towers next to our desks, then laptops and now the “phones” in our pockets, geeks became invaluable technicians and finally, with Bill Gates at the top of the charts, superstars.

Embrace your inner geek

Along the way, we discovered that we all have something that fascinates us to distraction. Comic geeks, theatre geeks, band geeks, film geeks, food geeks and others joined computer geeks in the pantheon of creative passions. We can’t all be outcasts, and the acceptance of our nerdy friends, the “geeks” that brought us pong, then forums, then the graphic Internet, Facebook and The Rivard Report, is a very positive indication words evolve with new understanding and new meaning, and with their elevation, so can our species.

P.S. In researching this piece, I found a marvelous and helpful infographic on Flowtown. Enjoy:

Geek Flowchart from Flowtown

The Evolution of the Geek. From Flowtown, click image for larger size.

San Antonio copywriter gary s. whitford is half of Extraordinary Words, providing effective communications for business and non-profit development. You can find Extraordinary Words on Facebook, LinkedIn and its website. You can read more of gary’s writing on his personal blog.

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4 thoughts on “Every Word Counts: As Goes “Geek,” So Goes the Species

  1. If you follow the link to the infographic on flowtown link to their website you’ll see that no girls in the photo is the most common topic under discussion. The creator even apologizes.

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