It's Time To Reclaim "Geek"

Illustration for article titled Its Time To Reclaim Geek

A professor recently declared "nerd" and "geek" derogatory words, to "be avoided." I agree it should be avoided—but for different reasons.

It was pretty surprising to read Dr. David Anderegg's comments in the New York Times yesterday. Dr. Anderegg, who's a professor of psychology at Bennington College, is claiming that the words "nerd" and "geek" should stop being used, as they're "damaging, much like racial epithets."

Years ago, certainly before my time, the term "geek" actually meant something entirely different to what it does now. The first reference came from the 1976 version of the American Heritage Dictionary, describing a performer in a freak show who bit off the heads of chickens.


You could say the word has changed at least three times over the years, as following 1976, a geek was someone who was a heavy gamer, computer platform-agnostic, and most likely grew up to be a developer or web designer. Movies of that era portrayed geeks as being the basement-dwellers who very rarely got the girl, with films like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science, and even James Bond's Goldeneye, with the Boris Grishenko character perpetuating the stereotype. Even Bryce in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider is the quirky geek who just amuses everyone, but no-one would want to actually be. It just wasn't glamorous, but you could certainly say it was the most "hardcore" form of the word.

In the last couple of years though, the word has changed again. The "geek" accolade is a badge of honor, people are proud to call themselves one. It's now used to describe someone with a Twitter account, a wide selection of iPhone cases with Mario characters on, a Tumblr log-in or a penchant for ironic t-shirts. The girls read GeekSugar, the boys search eBay for old Dreamcast games, and they all think they're pretty cool—and different to everyone else.

It's become such an overused—and misused—word that it's lost its meaning along the way.

Now, a geek is just someone who's vaguely techie, knows how to use the internet properly, and has an appreciation for ironic throw-backs to their childhood. It also suggests a pride behind the intelligence one possesses, but with everyone throwing it around willy-nilly, the meaning has become extremely muddy.


Even the geeks in films have changed in the last few years. See Matt Farrell in Live Free or Die Hard, and any character Simon Pegg plays. TV shows like the The Big Bang Theory and The IT Crowd—these new geeks are being portrayed in almost every form of entertainment going.

It's become pretty frustrating watching it all, but recently I'd been feeling like the word "geek" wasn't being used quite as much—that one day it could be reclaimed, and the square-rimmed glasses-wearing brethren could go back to just being the normal people, normal for a period of time when everyone uses the internet and knows how to download iPhone apps.


Dr. Anderegg's comments show a dated view of the word "geek," similar to the geek 2.0 meaning I mentioned, when film characters leaned more towards Poindexter than to Chloe O'Brian from 24; one he feels will stop young people from studying the more "geeky" subjects, such as science and math.

On the contrary, I think they actually encourage people to take a closer interest in those fields, especially with role models like Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Evan Williams from Twitter and Stephen Fry out there today. But I do think it's time the proper geeks reclaim their word, if only to stop me from bristling every time I overhear a 14-year old girl being called "geeky" for knowing how to use BitTorrent.


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I want to give a hearty amen to that last sentence. And yet, at the same time it seems to serve as the most succinct counterpoint to the good doctors argument. Whether they're total posers or not, there is an air of "whoa, being a geek is cool!" now. On the one hand, I want to correct the newbs and say "You're not a geek until you've built your own computer from scratch" or something like it. And yet, it feels kind of validating knowing that because of the diligence of past nerds, I can be excited about tech and knowledge and not worry about getting picked on or ostracized.

I think Dr. Anderegg needs to be reminded of that. It seems he's stuck in the past just a little too much. It's a geek's world now. The computer revolution is over. We won. Now, you're not limited to being the strongest or the prettiest. The smart ones have a damn good shot at being successful and accomplishing stuff too. If this guy wants to try to claim that the bad mojo of the geek moniker is still around, I think he needs to keep it quiet. Don't tell that to all the happy successful geeks that are out there right now.