The Geek Squad. Freaks and Geeks. Geek Girls. Geeks Without Borders. Integral Geeks. Geeks Who Drink. Many are quick to call themselves geeks these days. And nerds. Even dorks. They wear the label with pride (Geek Pride). Well, cut it out! Respect yourself, dammit! Stop calling yourself a geek!
What's the word mean? Originally it was a sideshow freak. A wild man, sitting in a cage, long scruffy, flea ridden beard, chewing on raw meat - or even biting the head off a live chicken - as fairgoers stared in morbid fascination. It's used in that context in Katharine Dunn's novel Geek Love, Robertson Davies' novel World of Wonders and Bob Dylan's song Ballad of a Thin Man.
As I came to know the term in school, it meant a socially stunted reject. Taped glasses, breast pocket full of pens, nonexistent fashion sense, an Asperger's-like inability to relate to others, or to understand this about themselves. Napoleon Dynamite. Urkel. A couple of unnamed characters on Saved by the Bell who never had any lines - their nerdy appearance was the punchline.
Eventually, within high school, "geek" became a vague, catch-all insult, meaning a person you didn't like. Nerdiness had as little to do with it as homosexuality had to do with someone being called "fag."
Nowadays, among adults, "geek" is self applied and refers to someone devoted to something outside the mainstream. Usually computers, or genre fiction (comic books, Star Trek, novels about wizards). People gathering to wax enthusiastic about their interest are "geeking out." But someone might call themselves a geek (or nerd, or dork) to reference their love of old movies, knitting, race cars, vegan cooking, basketball - any interest at all.
Words change meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary (kept on the shelves of Word Nerds) records these shifts. And commonly, a new meaning will entirely supplant an old one. But that's not what's happening with "geek."
In high school, "geek" means you're a loser, you'll never get a date, you're the butt of jokes. Self-described adult geeks defy that value system, saying it's okay to have been cast out by the vapid cool kids. We outlanders can hang together and talk about our interest without having to explain it, temper our love of it, or apologize for it. And indeed, why should what's socially acceptable in high school have anything to do with what an autonomous adult interests herself in?
But to call oneself a geek is to accept those high school social values, even while defying them. There's a layer a shame motivating the defiance. Otherwise, why the defiance?
It's also a way of ghettoizing the interest itself. To brand oneself a geek for being into Buddhism, biology or Battlestar Galactica implies that those aren't legitimate things for a socially adept person to give their time to. Why not? Why should any subject be off limits? Why should any interest automatically stunt a person who likes it and delves into it?
Ultimately, calling oneself a geek is a way of accepting and validating the ostracism the term connotes in the first place. Embracing geekdom and choosing to spend time with other geeks allows one to never have to move into the world other people inhabit. Who needs them. They won't accept me for being into what I'm into. So I'll stay in this smaller world and limit my knowledge and associations and ambitions to what my fellow geeks understand.
But here's the thing - I don't know anyone who calls themselves a geek who's actually like that. My friend Charlie Ross, who tours the world performing The One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings, and often calls himself "super-dork" when talking to his audiences, reads Joseph Campbell, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Harold Pinter and Jane Urquhart. He's funny, articulate, charming, creative and can have a vibrant, intelligent conversation with anyone. The website Integral Geeks posts a weekly round-up of consistently interesting and accessible articles on health, environment, technology, arts, living and other subjects. What's stunted about that? I've known self-described geeks who are not only well educated and well read, but well traveled, well spoken and athletic.
"Geek" isn't an accurate term to describe such a person. Anyone who displays enough self-awareness to self-deprecatingly and ironically label themselves socially dysfunctional kind of… isn't. Anyone who's knowledgeable about a subject isn't automatically an inarticulate, unkempt, raw meat chewing sideshow freak. And anyone who actually is socially or intellectually stunted does themselves a disservice by embracing that state.
So how about "aficionado"? Merriam-Webster's definition: a person who likes and knows a lot about something. No stigma implied. Or maybe "connoisseur." "Devotee." "Enthusiast."
Any subject can be worth exploring. Keeping oneself open to the myriad avenues of interest life offers can whet and perpetuate a deep, rich curiosity that keeps a mind hungry, varied, and motivated to connect with people from any field at all. Affording yourself respect can help widen the scope of your fascinations, which can enrich your love and understanding of whatever it was you were interested in in the first place.