labor-dayThe triumphant return of this New and Improved (?) Geek Speak Magazine coincided with the United States Labor Day holiday, the traditional end of summer and one of the biggest travel weekends of the year. Cherished international readers, please picture millions of minivans crawling up and down I-95 (the major artery that winds its way down the East Coast) in the heat. Recent refinements in statistical methodology allow us to say with some certainty that each one contains a family, not infrequently including at least one dog; three to five half-eaten containers of cold McDonald’s fries; one seat that is damp with something that is either Mountain Dew or simply unspeakable (wee Jackson is the only one who knows for sure, but his cute little cargo shorts are damp and he’s not talking); and no fewer than seventeen passionately held and loudly articulated opinions.

Happily, not only are we at Geek Speak an eclectic, international family that occasionally likes to, uh, disagree most cordially over matters both small and great, but we have among our ranks two actual siblings with which to observe Labor Day in the time-honored traditional manner, i.e., by throwing down and breaking bad. Here, our Editor at Large, Kate Nagy, and her brother Chris go head-to-head over what it means to be a geek, along the way touching on a highly diverse array of subject matter including macramé, Miss America, porn, Les Misérables, and 1970s champion long-distance runner Steve Prefontaine. (Honey Boo Boo’s mother was also originally included, but was excised at Chris’s request.)

So let us transport ourselves into a typical family vacation with the Nagii, and with the sunblock dripping all over the back seat, the sand up in everybody’s nooks and crannies, and the nearest rest stop forty miles up the road, let the battle commence…

geek-insideCHRIS: I really like Geek Speak Magazine. I have enjoyed reading it since its inception [back in 2010 – Ed.] and have been pleasantly surprised by how much personal satisfaction I get out of the writing since I joined the staff. I have but one, single, teensy-weensy gripe: use of the term “geek”.

This is by no means isolated to Geek Speak, and has bothered me for some years now. Dilution of the term “geek” is society-wide. I feel like the word used to mean something, but has lost that. Let’s take a quick look at the history of the term, and to whom it has variously applied:

1960s – Scientists, particularly dedicated graduate students, NASA employees, anyone whose life focus was to prove a mathematical conjecture nobody else had heard of.
1970s – Computer geeks are introduced to the group. There is still balance in the sociological universe.
1980s – Dungeons and Dragons players and Devo fans manage to weasel their way in, because most of them were geeks (or geeks in development) by the traditional definitions anyway. Some slippage, but manageable.
1990s – The Comic-Con crowd claims the term as their own. For the first time, “geek” is about hobbies, entertainment, and sometimes just appearance.
2000s – Griping about the cancellation of Firefly makes one a geek.
2010s – Interested in a genre of entertainment? You are a geek of that genre.

To cite a (fairly) recent example, in 2011 the reigning Miss America, Alyssa Campanella, described herself as a “history geek”. In what I might only describe as a bold and daring act of intellectual hypocrisy, the 1990s vintage “geeks” flipped out at her appropriation of the term, a mere 20 years after they essentially did the same damned thing. Is this just natural development of the language, or is it time for the old school, hardcore geeks to go kicking in some linguistic doors? Can, and should, the term be reclaimed?

fireflycastKATE: “Can, and should, the term be reclaimed?” No and no. Language evolves, after all. Remember when “bad” meant bad and “sick” meant you were throwing up? And don’t even get me started on “epic.” To me, and I think to a lot of people, including your friend Ms. Campanella, “geek” connotes deep interest in and passion for a subject that may or may not be a little esoteric. A fan owns Firefly on Blu-Ray and dresses as Captain Mal for Halloween; a geek purchases shooting scripts at auctions and dresses as Captain Mal when going to the grocery store. How can that kind of passion for one’s subject be a bad thing?

As for the fair Alyssa, I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that if, instead of a pretty young woman whose talents included wearing a really hot swimsuit, she was a male Hell’s Angel who described himself as a “barbecue geek,” her critics would have… well, not existed. Sexism has not yet been eradicated in the Geek-O-Sphere, I’m sad to say.

A question, though: why would hardcore geeks (you seem to suggest that being a scientist is a prerequisite) even want to reclaim the term, given its association with the great unwashed masses at Comic-Con? It seems to me that the term was valued by that group – we’ll call them the Ur-Geeks – for its exclusivity. Anyone could flunk out of Biology 101, but it took TEH BRAINZ to be a geek. But now, a nodding acquaintance with Joss Whedon’s oeuvre or an opinion on who should play Wonder Woman or The Ancient One seems to be all that it takes. If the Ur-Geeks can’t beat ‘em and don’t want to join ‘em, should they coin a new term? [Aren’t they just nerds? – Ed.] Or – now that it’s a different world than it was during the Golden Age of Geekdom, and technological savvy is appreciated – nay, celebrated – and science is all sexy and shit, is it time to mourn the Age of the Geek That Was, and embrace a new, more inclusive reality?

And since when do you follow the Miss America pageant, anyway?

Alyssa Campanella: History Geek.

Alyssa Campanella: History Geek.

CHRIS: C’mon, Kate. You know what a pageant geek I have always been.

Back to the matter at hand, your example of the application of costuming is an enlightening one, but problematic. First, that is not how the term has been bandied about. “Geek” has become too broad a description, too big a tent to remain suspended under its own weight. It has gone well beyond the casual Whedonite. Currently, a geek includes anyone who is a fan of a genre of book, movie, or television show, along with those of the traditional definition. Do you know who that includes? Everybody. The only people who are left out of this modern use are the hardcore isolationists who have removed themselves from society, basically Thoreau and the Unabomber (both of whom I would claim were geeks). The current use of geek has become so broad that it is useless. It is over-evolved.

So, yes, some reclamation is probably in order, whether it is driven by the most geekly or us common citizens. I would propose that a geek is anyone whose pursuit of their own academic or artistic expression is focused enough to be detrimental to other areas of their life. I would absolutely NOT limit to the scientific, but I would limit it to the intellectual and creative. Under this, your costumed guy at the Kwik-E-Mart is still a fan, albeit a more dedicated one. But, on some level, a geek sees their area of focus and dedication as growth and improvement, not entertainment. They are trying to become something else, not merely emulate it.

Much like trying to define art, porn, or good chili, within this definition there is a gray area. At the nucleus of that gray area is fan fiction. Gun to my head, I could not clearly call it “geekly” or “not so much”. Is it artistic expression? Yeah, it probably is. Does it meet the spirit of the definition? I am not sure. In some cases it is a gateway to geekdom, while in others it is just a pastime. In short, my definition is imprecise, but still useful.

In regards to your example of the leather clad one percenter who is also happens to be a BBQ aficionado, that is not sexism. Rather, it is survival instinct. If that Hells Angel were instead a pale, skinny 20-something hipster, the critics would have still been vocal. It is unlikely that Miss America would kick my ass.

A macrame-based hangover...

A macrame-based hangover…

KATE: So much to digest, so little time. First of all, your contention that these days, Geek=Fan=Geek. Really? I mean, I’m a casual fan of Coldplay (shut up, I’m a soccer mom, I’m entitled), but I wouldn’t call myself a Chris Martin Geek, nor would most other people, even though I know all the words to “Viva La Vida.” (Again I say SHUT UP.)

Then there’s the meat of your argument: What’s a geek really? By your definition, it’s someone who “is anyone whose pursuit of their own academic or artistic expression is focused enough to be detrimental to other areas of their life.” But isn’t that, you know, everyone? At least everyone who’s been to school? If, say, Robert Downey, Jr.’s social life was tanking and he was forgetting to bathe and his wife was threatening to leave him because he was so deeply immersed in his doctoral dissertation on the history of macramé, would that make him perforce a crafts geek?

You go on to say, “On some level, a geek sees their area of focus and dedication as growth and improvement, not entertainment. They are trying to become something else, not merely emulate it.” That’s a very poetic way of describing… every Twi-hard ever. Or every teenager ever, for that matter. Or most people. Don’t a lot of people want to be other than what they are? But most people aren’t geeks – even I would agree with that.

So what, then, is a Geek? I, enterprising soul that I am, looked it up on Wikipedia. This is verbatim, so you just know it’s correct:

“This word comes from English dialect geek, geck: fool, freak; from Low German geck, from Middle Low German. The root geck still survives in Dutch and Afrikaans gek: crazy, as well as some German dialects, and in the Alsatian word Gickeleshut: geek’s hat, used in carnivals.[1] The Swedish transitive verb gäcka (to outsmart, to fool) has the same root; att gäcka rättvisan (to escape justice by clever tricks) is a set expression.”

Two concepts jump out: Cleverness and eccentricity. Say, a fan owns the Special Edition DVD of Serenity; a geek names her daughter Serenity? And raises contraband pet cobras named River and Simon? Or something like that? Is perhaps what’s missing from your definition an element of oddness?

The Conundrum (The Enigma) from The X-Files's carnival geek-laden "Humbug"

The Conundrum (The Enigma) from The X-Files‘s carnival geek-laden “Humbug”

CHRIS: I can absolutely buy into the oddness piece. There is probably even a tangential conversation about whether oddness is a cause or effect of geek. Cleverness? Maybe. But, naming your kid or pet after fictional (or notorious, or historic) characters is not all that odd, and not even vaguely clever. The Wiki-definition (along with Webster’s, which is quoted by Wiki) does not appear to comprehend variations of geek by genus and species. It lacking is any connection to fandom, or even interest in an arbitrary topic, instead reducing geek to “crafty weirdo”. Even were I to accept this definition, I would claim that the overwhelming majority of the self-proclaimed “geeks” out there are neither especially crafty nor particularly weird. Combining a prom dress with a Boba Fett helmet? Seen it. Iron Man abandoning his hookers and blow for the study of macramé? Hell, I don’t know. We could argue about contrived borderline cases until we are both old(er) and gray(er), but I don’t think that gets us anywhere.

The “Geek=Fan=Geek” phenomenon, while not universal, is out there (See: Campanella, Alyssa). But this is not a question of where the line is drawn. The problem is not that the geek region of the fan spectrum is too large. The problem is that it is perceived to exist at all. The two concepts do not share a common continuum. My protest is with the very concept of “fandom extreme A” = not a geek, while “fandom extreme B”= geek, not of the locations of A and B on the scale of Whedonism. (Incidentally, I have never seen Firefly. Am I the only one?) [Kate says: Probably.]

I kind of like the Wiki definition (despite the fact that it really agrees with neither of us). It is very old school, conjuring images of the circus side show, of frogboy and the bearded lady. Do you suppose that this same argument was made 40 years ago, except between NASA employees and the guy who drove nails into his extremities five nights a week, with two shows on Saturday?

KATE: Funny you should bring up carnival geeks. Have you read Geek Love by Katherine Dunn? A good book, if slightly insane. It’s about a family of circus freaks. In that universe, a “geek” is a performer who bites the heads of live chickens – a definition I think we could agree is a little too restrictive for our purposes. (At least, I assume it is. What do I know about the private lives of our readers?)

Anyway, I’d like to restate our basic premises for the benefit of our readership. Here goes:

I SAY: Geek = Xtreme fan. Yay!

YOU SAY: A geek is anyone whose pursuit of their own academic or artistic expression is focused enough to be detrimental to other areas of their life. An element of eccentricity is involved. Note that the term does not include academic or artistic expression in the following areas: the humanities (specifically including history), athletics, or (probably) Twilight fan fiction. Possibly (correct me if I’m wrong) limited to the STEM fields.

Here are some pretty pictures to illustrate what I think I’m hearing:

1. Kenneth Calloway (Mark Duplass), of Safety Not Guaranteed. Time traveler. Spends most of his time working on a time machine. Talks of little else.
Kenneth: GEEK.

2. Alyssa Campanella. Miss America 2011. Pageant queen and self-described history buff.
Alyssa: NOT A GEEK.

3. Inspector Javert of Les Miserables. Devotes himself body and soul to bringing Jean Valjean to justice and literally dies of mortification when he realizes how badly he’s wasted his life. (Um, spoiler?)
Javert: NOT A GEEK.

4. Steve Prefontaine. Champion runner. Famously pushed himself to run harder, farther, faster than anyone else. And yet…
Pre: NOT A GEEK.

Is that a fair assessment?

To sum up, I think we’re both in agreement that geekiness is like porn; we know it when we see it. We disagree on where the line is. We agree that the term connotes passion for a subject; but my emphasis is on the “passion” while yours is on the “subject.” It’s a regular Mars-Venus split here; you’re looking at the “what,” while I’m looking at the “how,” the “why.” We are in agreement that the expression of that passion – for whatever it is – crosses the boundaries of what is considered “normal.”

And I believe I could write an entire award-winning dissertation on the male/female aspects of the definition of “Geek.” Sociolinguistics graduate programs of the world, I await your call.

Any famous last words, Christopher?

steve-prefontaine-poster-olympicCHRIS: Prefontaine is an interesting case. Aggressive, hyper-competitive with an AWESOME 70s porn ‘stache, but we really don’t know enough about him. Did he love it, or was he just a competitive guy, and was naturally very good? His death is suggestive. Would a truly focused geeklete have a blood alcohol reading at twice the legal limit when he flipped his convertible after a party? Regarding the delightful Ms. Campanella, I do not know enough about her personally to lend an opinion, but am willing to spend any necessary time conducting interviews to get a better assessment. You know, in the interest of completeness. (Alyssa: Call me…) Calloway and Javert could not possibly be geeks, because they don’t actually exist. In order to be a geek, one first must be. [THIS list emphatically disagrees! – Ed.]

Do you suppose this follows gender lines? Is it possible that it follows personality more than gender? I am a technical type, while you are creative in nature. Maybe there is a statistical correlation between perception of geekness and fondness for Coldplay (sorry, I cannot seem to get past it). Food for thought…..

KATE: I was going to give you the last word here, really I was. But upon reflection…”Calloway and Javert could not possibly be geeks, because they don’t actually exist.” Really? That’s like saying James Bond isn’t a spy, Chewbacca isn’t a Wookiee, the Enterprise isn’t a spaceship, and V 2009’s Tyler Evans wasn’t a twit. Geekitude may be a special state of being, but it’s not that special.

Also… gender lines? Maybe. Rustle up some grant money for me and I’ll look into it. In the meantime, be my mirror, my sword and shield. My missionary in a foreign field. For some reason I can’t explain, I need to go re-watch my Firefly DVDs and GEEK OUT to some back issues of Interweave Knits: Traditional Knitting. Real knitters kick it Latvian-style, baby!

And: Happy Labor Day!

About the author

KATE NAGY

Kate Nagy is Editor at Large of Geek Speak Magazine, meaning that like the Maidenform Woman (80s reference WHOA), you never know where she'll turn up next. Likes: home repair, thunderstorms, 80s references, and the Lost finale. Dislikes: home repair, big crowds, bad music, and the Joker in any incarnation. Yeah, she's a little weird. How weird? Visit her blog, Kate Holds Court, to find out.

  • Gail Siegel

    If a geek geeks out in the forest, and there are no other geeks to appreciate the in-joke or stand in awe of the extremity of the fall, is that person still a geek? You’ve touched upon the social disapprobation aspects of geekdom (spouses up in arms! Bewildered parents!). What about the aspects of insider/outsider? Here’s an example: If you name your orange tiger kitten “Greebo,” in all likelihood, your vet and most of the rest of the world think you have misspelled “Mittens” terribly. But, a treasured few *know.* They get the joke. And you, geek that you are, exhibit a willingness to put up with this befuddlement , if not not downright sneering disregard, around your little joke (Aside: It is SO funny!), because it gives you an added alliance to the others like you. You care more for this than social convention.

    Now, for the most part, those who read history rarely suffer from social awkwardness, unless they just can’t resist bringing up Louis the Sun King in casual conversation. It’s not until they start flaunting conventions that they enter the realm of Geek, e.g. a group of friends heading out for a delightful weekend of Civil War re-enactment with authentic dysentery. It’s this thumbing of the nose at conventions that makes the geek well, erhm, kinda heroic, I think. Maybe ’cause I am one. OK, I gotta go pet Greebo now.