The Science of the Word Geek

Geek identity is a very personal topic to me, because it greatly contributes to my sense of self and to that of many of my friends. I therefore decided to devote a blog to it, bracing myself for mockeries and accusations of triviality. During the course of my research however, I had to face a hard fact: the word geek is offensive and imprecise in definition. As a result of this, the geek identity I was so eager to study might have been nothing more than a form of consumer behaviour.

Let’s consider the official definition of the term geek, provided in the third edition of the Oxford Dictionary of English:

 noun informal an unfashionable or socially inept person; (usu. With a modifier) a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast: a computer geek.

Unfashionable, socially inept, knowledgeable, obsessive: this description is mainly pejorative. A sense of identity must fill its users with positive emotions, especially pride; the word geek, however, is mostly laden with negative connotations. One could argue that, since people now choose to call themselves geeks, the term was redeemed, but recuperating an old insult does not unequivocally cleanse it of its former implications. In adopting the word formerly used to mock them, so-called geeks take the risk of sounding self-deprecating, and of therefore appearing to have resigned themselves to the insult. There is always a certain discomfort to hearing people self-identify as geeks, for these same people are likely to have once (not long ago) felt offended by the term.

Similarly, this dictionary definition of geek is imprecise, and somewhat falls short of common sense definitions. What of the interest in IT, science and science fiction that are so often associated with the geek stereotype? They are only present in less formal definitions, such as the one provided by Mark Henderson in The Geek Manifesto:

“People with a passion for science and the critical thinking on which it is founded (…)”

“(…) curious kids who always preferred sci-fi to celebrity magazines and chemistry sets to trendy trainers (…)

Judging from this example, informal definitions are more likely to emphasize the taste in science and science fiction popularly associated with geeks, but also tend to downplay the characteristics spelled out by the official definition (unpopularity, obsession, expertise and social inadequacy). The general understanding of the word does not match its official meaning; there is no consensus around its definition. Such a loosely defined term can only provide a flimsy, unreliable sense of identity.

In short, the word geek is too insulting and vague to constitute a source of identity or to contribute to a sense of self. For this reason, geek identity can only be a commercial construct designed to make us buy DVD box sets and articles of fashion. Nevertheless, here I am, starting a blog on geek identity. Why? Because sources of identity are important whether or not they are logical or serious. Society has accepted the geek construct, with people identifying as geeks and devoting their resources and skills to their idea of a geek lifestyle. I believe it is worth wondering why.


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