I *heart* my geek…

..says one of my favourite geek t-shirts, I’ve worn it to death for about 5 years.

At work we have a staff newspaper called Pravda Ariel and of course being the BBC, a lively letters page. This week the featured letter, standing out in bold white text on a deep purple background was one that particuarly interesting to me.

One of our colleagues from FM&T, a software engineer, had written in because he was less than happy…

His letter started off by reminding us about one of our BBC Values that we have printed on the back of our staff pass:

“The keyword ‘respect’ is noted as a BBC value on the back of your BBC pass. ‘We respect each other and celebrate our diversity so that everyone can give their best.’

– this is great, lovely, beautiful even, and I don’t think I work with anyone who would disagree with this.

But, getting back to the the crux of the letter:

“Software enginneers and computing professionals in the BBC are frequently labelled with demeaning and insulting terms, like ‘techies’ and ‘geeks’, by members of staff in other professional discaplines’.

“I find it upsetting to hear these disparaging terms in the office and feel it sad that there is a growing acceptance of the use of these labels among staff – even among the profession itself in an attempt to ameliorate the terms. They are even used in BBC output, such as the Click programme.

“The terms are typically used by staff in non-technical roles who, I feel, are getting away with blantent office bullying and professional one-upmanship which is damagine to the moral and self-esteem of staff in crucial technical roles.

Well, I nearly fell off my chair, exclaimed a big ‘WHOA’ and scanned the letter a again *and* again to take it all in, as I couldn’t quite believe what I was reading. I happened to be having lunch with three colleagues who work for the World Service (for the record, three software engineers, who are culturally, gender and age diverse, FWIW) and read the letter out to them – they were quite surprised by Andrew’s thoughts too.

I totally disagree with the sentiments of this letter, as I actually like the word ‘geek’ I think it’s cool, endearing and inclusive. I talk about ‘geeking’ all the time, ‘geek stuff’ and to ‘geek out’. I think that it’s origins may be a bit odd and unclear, but if it was negative at school, I think we’ve now successfully reclaimed it and made it our own.

However, I have debated the word ‘geek’ on more than one ocassion this with my other half. He’s been programming since he was 8 years old and suffered at school from negative connotations of this word and prefers the word ‘techie’ (which is also mentioned in the letter, but I haven’t even got on to yet). My SO doesn’t like the word ‘spod’ either and is a bit mystified that 6 years ago I belonged to a group of programmers who met on IRC and liked to call themselves ‘The Spod Corps’. Anyways…

Without hesitation I can categorically state that I’ve never heard the word ‘geek’ used in a pejorative, demeaning or bullying way at work or for ‘one-upmanship’ – a term I personally hate, so there you go! In my experience it’s always been used with affection and respect.

My current favourite TV programme is ‘The Big Bang Theory’ and follows a bunch of guys who could be described as ‘geeks’ and pokes fun at their everyday social, um dilemmas as high functioning chaps who might be on the edges of the social spectrum and have issues with everyday stuff such as socialising, girls or sarcasm. It’s light hearted and pokes fun at things we all see in ourselves sometimes, especially geeks. Some people might take offence at it, but then if you take offence at that, you should take offence at the IT Crowd too, which has a similar slant to social inclusion of geeky types but I don’t know any geeks, techies, hackers, programmers, coders or spods that do take offense at it.

If you look for dictionary meanings to the word ‘geek’ , you’ll find a multitude of explainations ranging from the derogotory, to the most positive – you can go from Urban Dictionary to OED So from a gerzillion definitions, heres one from Ask Oxford which is pretty standard – it’s both positive and negative, but the negative is mainly historical.


• noun informal, chiefly N. Amer. 1 an unfashionable or socially inept person. 2 an obsessive enthusiast.

— DERIVATIVES geeky adjective.

— ORIGIN from the related English dialect word geck ‘fool’.

…and I’m going to compare this with the first entry in Urban Dictionary

1. geek

The people you pick on in high school and wind up working for as an adult
The geeky kid now owns a million dollar software company

So there you go. Yes, yes, I know – there’s good *and* bad referals, but I definately use the good and hey, isn’t a lot of it about syntax and intonation – how you say a word? Bad is good, good is bad, wack, blah, ew (disclaimer – I’m not good at getting down with the kids on street talk)!

I could go on about this for another couple of hours, as I feel I’ve only just started on this and addressed only the tip of the iceberg as we could talk about all sorts of social inclusion / exclusion stuff about geeks and education and cultural aspects, etc, etc, etc… But I’m late and I’ve got a geek party to organise, so right now it’s the blog or the party – and I don’t want to let down a huge bunch of geeks! I’m a geek and I’m proud – so Yay! Woo! Hoopla!

BTW, I’m wearing my ‘I *heart* my geek tshirt today, so come and chat to me about it – tell me what *you* think!

PS, I’ve also got a t-shirt that says ‘geeKISSexy’ and I’ve had no complaints about that one either ;-P

PPS I now know what my next BarCamp discussion or similar is going to be about, so thanks for inspiring me – perhaps we can meet for coffee and discuss? :-D

PS x3 Just before someone invokes Godwin’s Law – I wouldn’t call someone a geek or any other term if they didn’t like it and asked me not to!

6 responses to “I *heart* my geek…

  1. I for one heartily agree with you. Words like geek may have been hurled with gay abandon in the playground, but like such other offensive words in the playground, they’re now almost used as terms of endearment by people within said communities. Then again, I’d describe myself as a wannabe-geek…

    Now, nerd. That *is* an offensive word. ;)

  2. I’ve heard the word geek used in negative connotations at work at the BBC. In fact it caused a row on the (yes, irony here) geekup mailing list. (I personally hate the word geek, since it has so many negative connotations)


  3. I agree with Andrew Ellis entirely. You may wish to use the work ‘geek’ to describe yourself, however, I find the term deeply condescending when used in a professional context.

    In your eyes it might have been ‘reclaimed’ from the negative connotations of the past. Whether this is true or not, as with all ‘reclaimed’ words I’m sure there are people from the relevant community who still find the word insulting and would be offended by its use. I am certainly one of those people. I don’t want to ‘reclaim’ it; I don’t want it used at all to apply to me.

    It seems to me that when used in a positive light it’s being used to describe a person belonging to a certain type of social grouping, part of the geek community. It’s more of a lifestyle choice. This group of people is certainly of a technical bent, but that’s not the same as everyone of a technical persuasion also being a geek. One is only a subset of the other.

    This is why I don’t think it’s appropriate for use in a work context. It brings with it a great deal of baggage and negative connotations, and the assumption cannot be made that everyone to whom it is applied is quite happy with its use. Should someone wish to be known as a geek then that’s fine. If two friends both think of themselves as geeks, then again, fine. But this does not apply to everyone doing jobs in this sort of area. Many of us are professionals and wish to be treated as such.

    Frankly, I find the constant use of ‘geek’ in the context of BBC Backstage and related events deeply embarrassing and it puts me off any involvement with them. Perhaps this is the point? Is Backstage there to serve the subset of the technical community who buy into the ‘geek lifestyle’? There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s the case, but it might be worth considering that it’s not a universally loved term, and may be have quite the opposite of the inclusive effect you hope for.

    As you point out, the term geek brings to mind the characters features in programmes such as “The Big Bang Theory” or “The IT Crowd”, however, unlike your acquaintances I *do* find these characters offensive, mainly because it reinforced the public expectation of what to expect from someone with technical skills. I work in a technical (or ‘brainy’) profession so the public expectation is that I should be socially retarded? I don’t think it’s something to be proud of. Geeks might not take offence at it, but I do *because* I don’t feel I am a geek. These shows reinforce the idea that I should be one just because of my job.

    I don’t find ‘techie’ as offensive, but I do find it patronising. It seems a term you’d use for the hired help rather than a fellow professional. It dismisses technical stuff as something ‘other’ something normal staff need not worry about. This is not a relationship of equal partners.

    So, use the term if you wish, I have no problem with others using it to describe themselves or their social group. But please don’t label me.

  4. All that and then a typo on the first line! Bah!

  5. I agree with An Engineer. But putting aside her arguments and assuming entirely positive connotations the whole geek culture thing still comes across as a kind of unpleasant inverted snobbery to me. Basically elitism, the quote from Urban dictionary says it all, there’s a whiff of small minded revenge to the whole thing.

    It’s also worth pointing out that even though words can be reclaimed the it’s not always OK for people outside the group to use them (having said that, it seems to me that comparing the reclamation of the word geek to that of the words queer and n****r kind of belittles the very real struggles of the last 50 years with respect to equality of race and sexuality)

  6. An Engineer‘s point about it being a reclaimed word, with all of the sensitivities that go along with that, is well made.

    I’m proud to be a geek. For me, ‘nerd’ is a more offensive and negative term, while geek is often affectionate. That said, of course it’s a matter of respecting what people are comfortable with. If people don’t self-identify as geeks then who am I to label them as such?