Geeks And Geekery: Why I Use These Words

Okay, fine. Geeks and geekery it is.

What do these words point at for me, and why do I use them?

You know, asking this, there’s no way in hell i’m gonna answer without wanting to share my decidedly minority views about language. You just know that. Please be advised that I know that these are not mainstream views. Please further be aware that I’m quite familiar with mainstream views, and have made a conscious decision that I don’t agree with them.

I use language to change my world. I always do. I never don’t. It’s rare for me to say always and never like this, and i’m skeptical of it, but this is as good a case for it as i’ve ever known.

I don’t believe that words are fixed points in a rigid conceptual space, and I don’t believe that reality can fit in sentences. I don’t talk to transmit information. I talk to change my world. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I constantly adjust my language, to better or worse effectiveness.

So with "geek" and "geekery".

"Geek" is a slang word deriving from carnivals, travelling circuses, sideshows, and the dirty world of 19th century entertainment. A "geek" was a role, a job. Someone would be hired to be the geek. Carnies used the word to variously the describe the idea, the role, the job, and the person currently filling it.

A very popular sideshow act was "the wild one". In its most archetypal form, this would be some unattractive fellow, with wild hair, dark skin, and flashing eyes. He’d be wearing animal skins, and would be made up to appear filthy and wild. He was demonstrably visibly human, and he was just as demonstrably an entirely natural other. He was wild. Demonstrations included weird violence, a lack of language, again, via archetype: the eating of the head off a live chicken.

These "wild men" — they weren’t always men, but most commonly — were called "geeks" in the trade. A carnival manager would ask a prospective employee what he could do, and the person would say, "I’ve got a great geek act." So a geek, percolated down through the years, carries a very strong overtone of "uncivilized’.

There are at least two other words in english that approach this same meaning: "dork" and "nerd". I use "dork" all the time, more or less interchangeably with "geek". I don’t use "nerd", because I don’t like how it sounds. It’s okay by itself, I spoze, but it doesn’t feel like a great rhythmic participant. It seems to break the rolling beat of any phrase that uses it.

Wil Wheaton said more or less famously: "What makes you a nerd isn’t what you love, it’s how you love it." I believe this saying — wrong-worded as it is for me — is at the very heart of this "uncivilized" overtone. Geeks, dorks, nerds, love the subject of their investment. They love it so much that people who don’t share their interests quite often find them uncivilized.

My wife, Virginia, is a gifted artist. She’s got all the usual art areas in her domain, but her long-term specialty was working with clay. She makes clay shapes, decorates them, fires them, then gives them away or keeps them herself or sells them. I traveled around with her for a few years where she was showing her wares at various festivals. And we got to hang with quite a few of her peers.

One day, she ran into a woman whose work and work-experience was quite similar to hers, and they started chatting. I was manning the booth, and watching the two of them. They just chattered away for an hour or so. At one point, Va is telling this long involved story to the other person, and she delivers the punchline, something like this: "Oh," he said, "I thought you said five grams of gerstley borate!". And she and the other woman just absolutely fell out laughing about this.

And I’m watching all this. And I’m realizing, holy shit, I am watching two pottery dorks dork out together. I was tickled pink, of course. I had not the slightest clue — still don’t — about the actual subject of their session, let alone the meaning of that bizarre punchline. But I am intimately familiar with what they were doing, in every respect except the subject. They were being geeks, dorks, nerds, together.

A "geek" is someone who is highly creative, highly technical, and highly attached to being both.

Earlier, Tim offered a parenthetical comment of "(Dev Joy?)" as an annotation to my coinage "geek joy". That’s fine. It doesn’t upset me or anything. For me, tho, geeks are geeks regardless of subject, and devs are devs because they develop software. When I refer to the geeks on my teams or in the trade, I don’t mean just the programmers. I mean all the people who are highly creative, highly technical, and highly attached to being both. When I say "geekery" I mean all the activities that these highly technical highly creative highly driven people do when they are making things.

We are — and I am clearly in this camp — "uncivilized", in the sense that we resist any attempts to quell, sedate, mitigate, reduce, quieten, our creativity, our technicality, or our drive. "civilization" is not a dirty word, or anything like that. But so often — especially to someone who is a geek — it’s used as a way to suppress the profound love we feel for whatever the subject of our geek nature is. And make no mistake. Geeks of all stripes are frequently bludgeoned with this civilization club. (heh: see what I did there?..) many of us have spent our entire lives being told not to be that way. We are sensitive to that history and hurt by it.

Steve Biko said, "the greatest tool in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed." Although the dark connotations of "geek", "nerd", and "dork" are fading and will continue to fade. They still shade it. It is not at all uncommon for people who feel meanly-labeled to then adopt and embrace that label. In so doing, they are saying two things at once to two different audiences.

To the non-geeks i’m saying this: "It’s your fucking word, I would have preferred ‘friend’ or even just ‘person’. And I am using your mean little word because I now know it can’t hurt me any more." and to the geeks — all the geeks, of whatever stripe or interest — I’m saying "Hey. Hi. I’m one of us, too! Let’s go geek out together!" I used to be kinda sorry I was a geek. I spoze I am still kinda sorry when I don’t fit, but a lot less so than I once was. Nowadays when I encounter non-geeks, I’m less likely to be sorry for me than for them. They are missing out.

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