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November 16, 2012

My esteemed co-blogger Suzanne, in her engaging post on Chapter and Verse, mentioned in passing that

In my experience, when somebody refers to someone – ostensibly to themselves – as a “geek”, they imply that they actually are not informed in the usual manner, but just picked up this information casually.

I have a very different experience of this word.

In the circles in which I move, the unadorned term “geek” describes a techy or mathy/sciency geek. This was the original context of the term in modern American culture: geeks, like nerds, wore pocket protectors, carried slide rules or calculators, and messed around in science or computer labs. For hours. At every possible opportunity. For fun.

It is this depth and intensity of interest, including a tremendous attention to detail, that characterizes the geek. Geeks may very well, and very often do (at least in some fields, and circumstances permitting), go on to obtain formal training and perhaps even employment, but it’s the depth and intensity that motivate them to do this in the first place: because who wouldn’t want to go to school for, and then have a job in, something that you’d spend hours doing anyway because you love it?

The default geeks are geeky about computers or other STEM fields, but this interest is often enough coupled with gaming, science fiction and fantasy, comics, medieval re-enactment, and similar interests that are somewhat out of the mainstream that these hobbies, too, are often described as geeky, without further qualification.

I commend to your attention, for example, the Geek Feminism blog and associated wiki. From the wiki,

Geek Feminism is an umbrella term for a range of activities and efforts around women in geek communities which are explicitly feminist.

and the blog describes its focus as

1. geeky discussion about feminism
2. feminist discussion about geekdom
3. geek feminist discussion about other things

However, as evidenced by the quote in Suzanne’s post, it has become increasingly common to use the term together with a domain specifier to indicate a particular area in which one is deeply and intensely interested.

Stereotypical geeks are assumed to have poor social skills, presumably because they were busy playing with science and technology while their peers were learning to socialize. I suspect that at least some of this reputation is due to the inherent awkwardness of a conversation between two parties about a subject in which one party is deeply and passionately and exhaustively interested, and about which the other party knows little and cares less.

Geek was originally a pejorative term, and when used as a self-descriptor, it often carries a slightly self-deprecating nuance, indicating a good-humoured awareness that one does, indeed, get thoroughly absorbed in the subject to a degree that bores the socks off most people. It also conveys informality, and when used in community, it indicates a sense of bonding around both the subject and the intensity level.

I started calling myself a “theology geek” about ten years ago, without having previously encountered the term; I was tickled to realize what a good description it was. I could use it in conversations in which I’d gotten carried away to concisely and humorously explain what had just happened: it’s not that I’m showing off or being a bore, it’s just that this is really interesting, really interesting, ISN’T THIS ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING oh wait. Oh, sorry, for a moment there I forgot that normal people don’t think so. 😉

I actually started going to school for theology partly in order to find other theology geeks to talk to. (It’s a lot harder to find other theology geeks than F&SF geeks or gamer geeks or computer geeks.) At this point in my degree program, I actually am pretty well “informed in the usual manner,” but I am no less geeky about it.

One of the splendid things about the internet is that geeks of non-obvious geekiness can find each other! And here at BLT, a bunch of us Bible, Literature, and Translation geeks have found each other, so that we can have gloriously geeky conversations about obscure translations, playful interpretations, variant versifications, and anything else that tickles our fancy. Deo Gratias!

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 16, 2012 11:39 pm

    Ah, I confess, a moment of ridiculous carelessness. I almost turned the light back on last night and edited that line out of the post, and then I thought, oh what the heck, see what this stirs up!

    This reaction on my part is because of attempting to interact with men in the Bible software world. I can’t do it because of their complementation bias. That’s the full extent of my reasoning, so unsubtle. My bad.

  2. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 16, 2012 11:51 pm

    Maybe my nose was put out of joint, because I think that I am a “history geek” when it comes to Bible translation. I am just laughing at myself on this one. Silly of me.

  3. November 16, 2012 11:52 pm

    Well, I’m glad you left it in, because this was a fun post to write! I didn’t mean to put you on the spot for the casual comment.

    And, considering that it was prompted by your experience with men in the Bible software world… well, there’s a reason that there’s a Geek Feminism blog and wiki. The stereotypical geek is male (a male with poor social skills who can’t get a date), and most traditional geekdoms also have issues with sexism. The wiki maintains a timeline of incidents documenting these issues and the community responses, which makes for depressing reading. (The bright side is that there does seem to be a turning tide over the past year or two, as a number of communities have explicitly adopted diversity policies, codes of conduct for conventions, & so on.)

    I didn’t go into that because my first association with “geek” is very positive; but there’s no denying it’s there.

  4. Suzanne McCarthy permalink*
    November 17, 2012 12:06 am

    This is a good explanation. To me it came across in context as a gendered noun, a subtle suggestion that this kind of thing, knowing about who invented verses for the Bible, is a “guy” thing. I felt left out.

  5. November 17, 2012 11:13 am

    BTW Suzanne, let me encourage you to update the Wikipedia entry on Etienne to correct the misinformation about versification. Wikipedia is another geek community that suffers from a lack of participation by women.


  1. What is a geek? - Geek Ergo Sum
  2. What is a geek? | Geek Ergo Sum

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