Geek Etymology

Why have you suffer’d me to be imprison’d,
Kept in a dark house, visited by the priest,
And made the most notorious geck and gull
That e’er invention play’d on? tell me why.
 Shakespeare in Twelfth Night, V.i


Simply, geek is a variant of the Low German/Dutch word, geck, meaning a fool, simpleton, or dupe and I suspect it was originally intended as ridicule.  As a society we have always tended to categorize people and apply short pejoratives to the category created. “Mods”, “rockers”, “hippies”, “boomers”, and so on. “Geek” is generally applied to those of us who tend to become completely captured by the details of some topic or discipline. Thirty or 40 years ago most geeks were technically oriented, but as time passes we have further defined our geekiness into sub-categories, like game geeks, word geeks, movie geeks… (I can’t explain why sports geeks are called “super fans”.)   

In the mid-90s a geek geek,  Robert Hayden created the “geek code”, a programming construct that allowed one to precisely define their geek-traits. Mine is located on the About page.   

There is no question that we are inclined to unusual, “focused”, sometimes foolish behaviors! We probably have deserved some of the ridicule. But give us some credit: We have taken the ridicule and the term, redefined them in our image and made Geek (with a capital G) a core element of what we are.   

Is it any wonder that the preponderance of entrepreneurs are Geeks of one type or another?   

You are probably asking about now, “What are the differences between geeks, nerds, dorks and dweebs. The distinctions are clear and precise, and we will talk about them soon.   


Presidential Geek

No, it is not who you think! While it is evident our current president has certified geeks in his employ, he is really a poseur (“poser” for you millennial readers) when it comes to true presidential geekiness.

Before the word “geek” acquired its current meaning, the concept was most often applied to engineers. And in that context, the true presidential geek was Herbert Hoover, a mining engineer who proudly made his living in the profession. His defense of his work is classic:

“Engineering … it is a great profession. There is the fascination of watching a figment of the imagination emerge through the aid of science to a plan on paper. Then it moves to realization in stone or metal or energy. Then it brings jobs and homes to men. Then it elevates the standards of living and adds to the comforts of life. That is the engineer’s high privilege.

“The great liability of the engineer compared to men of other professions is that his works are out in the open where all can see them. His acts, step by step, are in hard substance. He cannot bury his mistakes in the grave like the doctors. He cannot argue them into thin air or blame the judge like the lawyers. He cannot, like the architects, cover his failures with trees and vines. He cannot, like the politicians, screen his shortcomings by blaming his opponents and hope the people will forget. The engineer simply cannot deny he did it. If his works do not work, he is damned….

“On the other hand, unlike the doctor his is not a life among the weak. Unlike the soldier, destruction is not his purpose. Unlike the lawyer, quarrels are not his daily bread. To the engineer falls the job of clothing the bare bones of science with life, comfort, and hope. No doubt as years go by the people forget which engineer did it, even if they ever knew. Or some politician will put his name on it. Or credit it to some promoter who used other people’s money … but the engineer himself looks back at the unending stream of goodness which flows from his successes with satisfactions that few professionals may know. And the verdict of his fellow professionals is all the accolade he wants.”