So…What IS a Geek Anyway?

A friend linked a PHD comic strip in Facebook today, and, having never seen or heard of the comic before, I spent a decent amount of time reading them. Nothing like a new webcomic for me to add to my list 😀

As I went through the comic, I found a strip that defined “geek” versus “dork,” and I was interested in seeing what it said. Please note in a previous strip, the character mentioned the contention involved with the words “geek” and “dork.” Here’s the strip:

phd010904sCourtesy of

This made me go back to Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks by Ethan Gilsdorf. This book is not only a self reflection on the author’s attraction to the fantasy genre, but a cultural study of the ever increasing acceptance of the “geek” subculture. Gilsdorf defines “geek” as such:

Terminology time: the words geek and nerd are often used interchangeably. “Geek” once stood for “General Electrical Engineering Knowledge,” a leftover scrap of U.S. Military lingo. A geek was also a circus performer who ate the heads off animals. Hence the science-math-freakazoid association. […] But the term geek has recently come to mean anyone who pursues a skill or exhibits devotion to a subject matter that seems a bit extreme: movie geeks, comic-book geeks, theater geeks, history geeks, music geeks, art geeks, philosophy geeks, literature geeks (Gilsdorf 51).

Because of the “groups” of geeks that are out there, there seems to be a greater acceptance of geekdom. Literature geeks will not only accept one another, but they will accept geeks of other subdomains because they will understand the difficulty associated with being a geek. Being a geek in many subjects ultimately comes to a similar end–a Ph.D. in your field of geekdom. I have the most amazing medieval literature professor: a man clearly brilliant and skilled in the field of language. But you know what? The fact that he talks with glee about how a word changed from Persian to Italian to French to English? He’s a geek! All of us who dream of being professors are geeks in particular fields. It’s no longer a stigma but a stamp of pride.

However, there is a dichotomy of geekdom that causes a serious rift in the idea of “extreme” devotion to subject matter. Some areas are considered worthy of studying and are considered what I call “professional geekdom”–literature is a noble pursuit, for example. Other areas are considered a waste of time, those that I call “leisure geekdom.” This binary creates a huge gap between the professional and leisure geek.

For example, we have gaming geeks, a subdomain that you cannot get a Ph.D. in, cannot have such “pride” in (yes, a dangling preposition–deal with it). These geeks, while also being close to one another and generally accepting one another, begin to branch into the “dork” that PHD brings up (although Gilsdorf defines nerd with a similar definition). Without having a source  or an outlet for “real life” success, gaming geeks win their victories on the battlefield, in the virtual world. To those of us who are not contained in that virtual world, these “successes” are trivial. And while becoming increasingly social within their own demographic, until online communication is fully integrated into socialization, gaming geeks will still have this mythical “basement dweller” stigma attached to them. “Normal people” seem to think that you cannot be friends with someone you have never met face to face; marrying someone you only met in a game is considered irrational by most.

Geeks are just as diverse as different religions, which is why there is so much debate over the term. Much like a particular sect of a religion may question the authenticity of a different sect in the same religion, we as geeks question what a geek is. Many do not consider me to be a geek because I’m popular, bubbly, blonde and wear pink (and not in a gothic way). I was a cheerleader, a dancer, and many other non-geeky things. However, I am comfortable calling myself a geek. Why? Because although I don’t fit the quintessential stereotypes of the geek (which really are more stereotypes of the dork/nerd attached to the word geek), I still have a strong passion–brinking on obsession–with literature, with writing, with words. I also have a strong interest in games and fantasy. Do I incorportate these things in EVERY aspect of my life? Well–I’m going to academic conferences, I’ve gone to NYCC…but I’ve also never LARPed or CosPlayed. Would some people scoff at my lack of geekiness? Yeah probably. But we need to support geeks–of all shapes, colors, sizes, beliefs, and so on. Perhaps eventually, a professional and leisure geek will be considered equal. Perhaps eventually, a cheerleader can be a geek if she wants to be.

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One Comment

  1. Oh noes, you signed off while I was typing this to you in MSN!

    Anyway, I totally agree with geek being cool as a term these days. The internet is a big factor in this, because it unites geekery into one big online blob and therefore stronger than they were in their little pockets prior to the online explosion.

    Different kinds of geekery are also present. Being a fellow writer about geekdom I can say that I have received comments and mails from people who wanted me to diversify and write about more aspects of geekery out there. I’m not really familiar with all of them, but I’d like to be as a general rule. It seems it’s like a niche but at the same time it’s not – it’s a general term that can take a lot of forms and I can’t help but think that’s cool.

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