Is "Geek" Still An Offensive Term Or Something To Take Pride In?

This is a guest post by Tom Demers. Tom writes about endpoint security for companies like Bit9.

A diagram of geek culture

Diagram of geek culture - click for larger version

The word “geek” is thought to have originated from sideshows and circus performers, and its earliest meaning was very derogatory. It usually was used in reference to someone who was offensive, foolish or worthless. However, this word has gone through a long evolution, and it now commonly refers to computer programmers and technology buffs.

So, is this term still offensive? Honestly, it’s a little hard to say. Many geeks openly refer to themselves with this term, but there are also many that use it as an insult. It all really comes down to the use of the word and personal feelings on the matter.

Good Usage
As stated above, the usage of the word “geek” can be either good or bad. Self-professed geeks often use it as a glorifying term, because it shows that said person is often very intelligent and tends to have an obsession with technology or is able to create unusual objects.

In this light, geek is not an offensive term. Many geeks, and friends of geeks, tend to use it as an endearing term or a way to easily describe the geek’s interests. When used in this manner it can be playful and fun to use. It also gives a sense of camaraderie for fellow geeks, as they know they will fit into this group rather well.

There are also many establishments that use the word “geek” as a good term. For example, Best Buy’s “Geek Squad” is seen as a technologically life-saving team of professionals that are great with hardware, software and anything else technical. The website “WiseGEEK” is a huge article directory that lists thousands of articles, and it is seen as a very good resource for people looking for information.

In these ways, geek is a good term that is being used more and more often within social circles both between geeks and for people who associate with them.

Bad Usage
There are those that use it inappropriately. This usage was huge during the 70s and 80s, though it has largely died down as geek awareness and glorification became larger. However, you can still hear it in schools, movies and other walks of life.

The bad usage of “geek” paints geeks as people that are obsessed with the intellectual pursuits. This isn’t bad, and usually is the truth. However, it makes geeks appear enfeebled when it comes to living outside of textbooks and technology, which is very far from the truth.

Between the nerd and geek wars, geeks are more often social and tend to have a good amount of friends. While there are of course some that can be considered shut-ins, these people exist in all niches. Being a geek does not mean you are locked in your house, tinkering away with technology in your mom’s basement. In this way, it makes geeks seem unable to live outside of their small world of circuit boards, books and films.

Geek Chic
Another point of contention is geek chic. This is a style movement that focuses on the stereotypical aspects of being a geek. This includes the thick-rimmed glasses, pocket protectors and shirts with in-jokes.

To some, this is a way to openly express their geek identity. For others, it is a stereotypical market that picks up only a few characteristics that geeks are known for having—but do not necessarily apply to the whole spectrum—but leave the identity of the geek entirely devoid of its true personality.

This is similar to the entire usage of the word, which can be good or bad. Overall, many people have been positive to the geek chic culture, but there are those that find it offensive.

Conclusion
So, is the term “geek” still offensive? Some people definitely still use it this way, but the bad usage has been dying down in the last few decades. People commonly use this term in a favorable sense when talking about technology buffs, and fellow geeks now use the term to glorify their intellectual pursuits.

Overall, the meaning of this term has completely changed. It went from one that had an absolutely bad connotation to one that is used in a good sense. So, when someone calls you a geek, don’t feel bad about it. It’s usually a compliment, and should be taken that way.

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