Answering my own questions since 2001

What’s the Etymology of “Geek”?

Another burning question. While I’ve always associated it’s early usage with circus freaks, that’s apparently not it (scroll down):

Geek is actually a very old word. It is a variant of geck, a term of Low German/Dutch origin that dates in English to 1511. It means a fool, simpleton, or dupe. Geck is even used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, V.i.:

Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention play’d on? tell me why.

It’s still not clear how it gained its current “computer geek usage. This page provides more insight into the circus freak angle, including a reference to the biting off of chicken heads

5 Responses to “What’s the Etymology of “Geek”?”

  1. mrG

    According to the Jargon Dictionary, and this agrees with my experience as well, the original usage was derogatory when used outside of an in-crowd, thus fitting the notion of the fool, and was later flipped into the positive form when, with the rise of VisualBasic, the old-meaning Geeks became more numerous and better paid than the old-guard Hackers:

    A computer geek may be either a fundamentally clueless individual or a proto-hacker in larval stage. Also called `turbo nerd’, `turbo geek’. See also propeller head, clustergeeking, geek out, wannabee, terminal junkie, spod, weenie. 2. Some self-described computer geeks use this term in a positive sense and protest sense 1 (this seems to have been a post-1990 development).

  2. mrG

    An expanded reference in the New Hacker’s Dictionary adds some additional colour:

    One description accurately if a little breathlessly enumerates “gamers, ravers, science fiction fans, punks, perverts, programmers, nerds, subgenii, and trekkies. These are people who did not go to their high school proms, and many would be offended by the suggestion that they should have even wanted to.”

    The updated entry also pays homage to the carnival legacy of entertaining the crowds by biting the heads off live fish …

  3. mrG

    …er, I meant chickens, but who knows, maybe fish too. Pro’ly say it’s Klingon Food. Bunch-a Geeks.

  4. Justin Alexander

    Thanks for the post. I found it while editing the script for Cymbeline for the American Shakespeare Repertory, which led me to unravel a further twist in the history of this word. Shakespeare actually uses it in Cymbeline, and spells it “geeke”:

    Why did you suffer Iachimo, slight thing of Italy,
    To taint his Nobler hart & brain with needless jealousy
    And to become the geeke and scorne o’th’others vilany?

    Modern editors have changed “geeke” to “geck” in order to standardize the spelling with Twelfth Night’s “gecke”. The OED even refers to the spelling of “geeke” as [sic], but since the earliest reference for “geck” in 1515 actually spells it “geke”, I’m not particularly convinced that Twelfth Night is to be preferred.

  5. Fiona Aper

    Aw, this was a extremely nice post. In concept I wish to put in writing like this moreover ?taking time and precise effort to make an excellent write-up?but what can I say?I procrastinate alot and certainly not appear to get 1 thing done.

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