what it is to be a geek

June 28th, 2007

The word geek gets thrown around a lot, with a slightly negative connotation. Actually the degree to which it is a negative term is determined by the social circle in which it is uttered. To some it is an insult, to others it's just a fairly neutral classification.

In any event, the term geek (as with many such labels) is a very bland and generic thing to call someone. What it means is a person who enjoys doing something on their own. Not a terribly discriminating term, is it? So if you're a person who can't stand to be alone for even a minute and possesses no creativity as to what you can do when people aren't available to spend time with you, then you are not a geek.

The geek classification often is linked to excellence in some field. If you spend a lot of time on something, which makes you a geek, you inevitably get quite good at it, which again cements your legacy of a geek. Of course, there's no other way to achieve the same thing, so if you want to excel at something, you have to spend a lot of time on it, and that amounts to an achievement.

For example, if you spend a lot of time learning a foreign language, then you're a language geek. If you spend a lot of time ice skating, that makes you an ice skating geek. So whatever you do to a certain level, you're a geek for doing it. And if you don't do anything to the extent that it establishes a pattern for which people call you a geek, then you won't be a geek. For instance, if you do *a lot* of different things for short periods of time, but never do anything for a long time, then won't be a geek. But, of course, you never do anything long enough to be good at it, so you don't accomplish anything.

If you think about when it is that people get assigned this label, it is precisely when they are engaged in doing something that doesn't involve the person announcing this fact. As such, it is perfectly possible to be a geek for doing something *with* people, just as long as it doesn't involve *everyone*. For instance, role playing geeks play in groups, and crackers (no, not white people called "crackers" by black people, I'm talking about the kind of crackers who break into computer systems) also associate with other crackers, because otherwise they would have no recognition for what they do. This is only a manifestation of the fact that people who are interested in something naturally seek out other people who are also into the same thing, to exchange information. It makes sense. So my first definition is actually too narrow, being a geek is *me* doing something that doesn't involve *you*.

So was the term geek originally a protest against exclusion? Was it a term that means why-can't-I-be-in-your-club? It might have been. Of course, not necessarily the word geek itself, words often originate in unexpected and random ways, but there are many words in many languages that mean roughly the same thing as geek.

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3 Responses to "what it is to be a geek"

  1. Brian says:

    dictionary.com says (in part):

    geek: a computer expert or enthusiast (a term of pride as self-reference, but often considered offensive when used by outsiders.)

    If you expand that to other areas beyond computers, that's what I was thinking too. I like your second definition as long as "you" is defined as "a non-geek". In other words, a geek is someone who does something that doesn't involve or interest non-geeks. Though that's a kind of circular definition.

    The dictionary mentions an element of social ineptness, which I think is also part of it. Maybe an overly scientific mind and a socially adept mind are somewhat mutually exclusive. There seem to be certain activities which attract the socially inept. Computers, science-related things etc. A football enthusiast probably wouldn't be called a geek, in my opinion. Why? Maybe because football isn't a scientific endeavor, or maybe because football doesn't appeal primarily to the socially inept, in the same way programming computers does.

    But thankfully, most geeks don't seem to be that alone. There's a real community of Linux geeks. There are Trekkie conventions and comic book conventions. Etc. etc. "Geek" may originally have been exclusionary, but now I don't think so. I have no shame in being a geek and having friends who are fellow geeks with the same interests.

  2. numerodix says:

    Are you saying that if you follow football and you spend a lot of time in talking about it and watching it, that doesn't make you a football geek? I'm not so sure about that. Incidentally, that's exactly what I do.

    I don't know about the social thing, I don't really believe it. Are you saying that a socially talented person who also happens to have a strong interest in Lord of the Rings isn't a geek for it?

  3. Brian says:

    Word usage is always pretty subjective, so your usage may be different than mine. But I wouldn't call a football enthusiast a geek. I would possibly call a LotR enthusiast a geek. The difference to me is how the subject matter is perceived by people in general, and the nature of the subject matter.

    It also may be a difference in culture where you live compared to where I live. Around here it's much more acceptable to be obsessed with sports than with computers or fantasy novels.