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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Geeks and Nerds

According to Wikipedia the term "geek" originally came from "circus geeks," sideshow attractions who attract audiences by swallowing live animals or biting off their heads. Evidently Ozzy was taking notes. Evidently the connection was bridging by viewing people who were overly obsessed by technology as akin to circus freaks and hence deserving of social scorn.

Obviously this has changed. The closest I've come to true geekdom is my SF fandom. But if someone were to call me a geek I would regard it more as a term of approval than as an insult. Like many other pejorative names it has been more or less adopted by techie obsessives as signifying those who are curious and knowledgeable about science and technology.

What is interesting is that the migration in meaning seems to mirror changes in society. I think if you were to call someone a nerd you still mean to imply a tendency towards social awkwardness. Certainly no one who is particularly skilled social would be a nerd--at least not outwardly. But I don't think this implication holds any longer for "geek." So much of our interaction with other people is or can be online that many geeks are in fact much more socially competent than more ordinary types. And perhaps more importantly, part of the social stigma originally associated with these terms was because most people thought of these techie or intellectual interests as peripheral to ordinary life. However, with the increasing importance of computers and the Internet in the economy, the job market, entertainment, and communication a basic understanding of these technologies has become necessary for almost everyone. Thus people value the interests of geeks more than they used to. This is no doubt why the term "nerd" still holds most of its original meaning--there has not been a corresponding rise in interest in bookish or purely intellectual pursuits.

Of course, it is possible that my understanding of the common usage of these terms is inaccurate. The people I know are those who would tend to be more sympathetic to the interests of geeks and nerds.

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