origin of ‘geek’

 

geek- Akron Beacon Journal - 14 November 1947

Tyrone Power never has been rated high as an actor, but he probably will be after “Nightmare Alley.”
This weird study of carnival freaks and mindreading spook acts gives Power one of his best roles. He is completely convincing as a heartless heel […].
The picture is based on the book by William Lindsay Graham, but it has been diluted, softened and glamourized with elaborate sets for the screen.
There is still a sickening scene at the beginning depicting the work of the “geek”—carnival freak who eats live chickens.

photograph and text from the review of Nightmare Alley, by Betty French
the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) – 14th November 1947

 

 

The primary meanings of the noun geek, which originated in northern England, are a foola dupe, an oaf. It was apparently a variant of geck, of same meanings. For example, in A glossary of words used in the neighbourhood of Whitby* (London, 1876), Francis Kildare Robinson (1809-82) defined the noun geek and the noun and verb geck (but grouped them with gawk and gowk, of similar meanings but of different origins):

GawkGeekGowk, or Gowky, a fool; a person uncultivated; a dupe.
[…]
Geck, v. to sneer or deride.
Gecking, pres. part. scorning; chuckling.
[…]
Gowk, or Geck, a fool.

(* Whitby is in North Yorkshire.)

Notes:
– The word gawk is perhaps related to the obsolete verb to gaw, meaning to gaze, from Old Norse to heed.
– The noun gowk is from Old Norse gaukr; both originally denoted the cuckoo.

– Of Germanic origin, geck seems to be related to the Dutch noun gek, meaning a foolan idiota lunatic, and to the German noun Geck, meaning a fool and a fop.

The first known user of geck was the clergyman and poet Alexander Barclay (circa 1484-1552) in his first eclogue, written around 1530:

And he is a foole, a sotte, and a geke also,
Which choseth a place unto the same to go,
And where diuers wayes lead thither directly
He choseth the worst and most of ieopardie.

In Twelfe Night, Or what you will (1601-02), by the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Malvolio say to Olivia:

(Folio 1, 1623)
Why haue you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,

Kept in a darke house, visited by the Priest,
And made the most notorious gecke and gull,
That ere inuention plaid on? Tell me why?

From these original meanings, geek came to be applied, in American English, to an overly diligent, unsociable student. This sense is first recorded in a letter written on 1st October 1957 by the American poet and novelist Jack Kerouac (1922-69):

Bottles of Old Granddad, big articles in Sat. Review, in World Telly, everyfuckingwhere, everybody mad, Brooklyn College wanted me to lecture to eager students and big geek questions to answer.

The word is now mainly used to denote any unsociable person with an obsessive interest, and specifically a person who is extremely devoted to, and knowledgeable about, computers or related technology.

But, especially as a self-designation, the technology-related sense is not necessarily depreciative; the following is from Mondo 2000: A User’s Guide to the New Edge (Harper Perennial – New York, 1992):

Geek is the proud, insider term for nerd. If you are not a dedicated techie, don’t use this word.

In American English, geek also denotes a performer at a carnival or circus whose show consists of bizarre or grotesque acts. In Mysteries of the Carnival Language, published in The American Mercury (New York) of June 1935, Charles Wolverton compiled “a glossary of the carnival man’s language”, containing:

Geek: a degenerate who bites off the heads of chickens in a gory cannibal show.

Ballad of a Thin Man (1965), by the American singer and songwriter Bob Dylan (Robert Zimmerman – born 1941), contains the following lines:

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”

 

Ballad of a Thin Man
from Highway 61 Revisited

You walk into the room
With your pencil in your hand
You see somebody naked
And you say, “Who is that man?”
You try so hard
But you don’t understand
Just what you’ll say
When you get home

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
“It’s his”
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone?”

But something is happening
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You hand in your ticket
And you go watch the geek
Who immediately walks up to you
When he hears you speak
And says, “How does it feel
To be such a freak?”
And you say, “Impossible”
As he hands you a bone

And something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To all give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

But something is happening here
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, the sword swallower, he comes up to you
And then he kneels
He crosses himself
And then he clicks his high heels
And without further notice
He asks you how it feels
And he says, “Here is your throat back
Thanks for the loan”

And you know something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Now you see this one-eyed midget
Shouting the word “NOW”
And you say, “For what reason?”
And he says, “How?”
And you say, “What does this mean?”
And he screams back, “You’re a cow
Give me some milk
Or else go home”

And you know something is happening
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

Well, you walk into the room
Like a camel and then you frown
You put your eyes in your pocket
And your nose on the ground
There ought to be a law
Against you comin’ around
You should be made
To wear earphones

Because something is happening
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

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