When Did Geeks Get Cool?


I have this friend Erez. Erez is a fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows, Visiting Faculty at Google, and has presented his ngram reader for Google Books at TEDxBoston. Erez is a diverse sort — he’s also worked on genome sequencing, an insole to help seniors keep their balance, and published a ground-breaking paper on linguistic rules. Erez and his wife also run a non-profit. I first met him a decade ago when he was working on a Master’s degree in History. From our first conversation, I knew that Erez is one of the coolest people I’ve met (I woudn’t be surprised to one day learn that he’s a secret agent). But when we were growing up (me in Pennsylvania; Erez in Brooklyn), the last word used to describe someone like him would have been cool. What’s changed?

When I was a kid, geek was mostly used to describe adults. Really awful adults. Adults who had no sense of humor, only cared about how things worked, and obviously had no fashion sense. If you looked up ‘geek’ in my brain, you’d see a picture of this guy:

You will always be a great example of nerds and geeks, Bill Gates.

Admittedly, there’s bias to that train of thought. I grew up in an Apple family, using only their computers from the age of seven or eight. My computer at home was awesome and had exciting games where you could build a human face or play a stock market game that I didn’t understand. At school? We had a lame letter fill-in game and The Oregon Trail. Obviously, the minds behind the school computer weren’t cool.

Suddenly, in tenth grade, computers became interesting. It turned out that there was a thing called the internet and that you could email people with your computer. I also met an actual computer nerd for the first time, my friend Rebecca. Technology was so innately cool to her, and she was my friend. Transitive coolness. I was intrigued. Becca would sit in class painting windows logos on her fingernails and programmed card games on our graphing calculators. It was also around this time that everyone was getting into AOL (I mentioned email, right?). Apple’s Think Different campaign also alluded to the idea that the minds behind the Mac were as intriguing as Einstein and Picasso. High schools girls everywhere (in my all-girls high school, at least) started flirting with geeky guys to get help with setting up IM.

Fast forward to college — everyone is using Napster, kids my age are developing and harnessing technology, and it feels like we’re in the middle of something revolutionary. We young people are doing stuff, even if that stuff is mostly illegally downloading music online. We communicate by email, because we’re cool. We research online, because we’re cool. We talk about internet connections and ever faster computers, because we’re cool. Computer science majors are in demand, and even the adults grow familiar with terms like CPU, monitor, and RAM. Then, Steve Jobs pushes everything further by introducing the iPod.

The hush in the room is amazing. It’s unclear if the audience believed what he was telling them. They definitely didn’t grasp how the iPod was going to change the music and technology industries. As Jobs pulls the prototype out of his pocket at the end, it seems to dawn on the audience that this isn’t something he’s imagining, but something actually in production. BOOM! What a freaking cool geek!

And suddenly, geeks were everywhere. People were discussing the money to be made in computers, art students were training on computers, musicians were producing on computers, and people were hungry to know more about them. The more we wanted to know, the more desirable the people who understand them became.

For kicks, I harnessed the power of the ngram to chart the popularity of six terms from 1980 through 2008, the most recent searchable date. Look at the jump rise in use of the term geek in the early 2000s. My analysis of the chart follows.

The overall trend of the chart shows that the noun is more popular than its corresponding adjective, although dork and dorky reverse that trend. This may have something to do with the use of dorky in popular culture to mean the opposite of fashionable. It was employed quite often in reference to things that had little to do with technology or dorks themselves. In 1980, the terms dorky and nerd were in use more than geek and dork, while nerdy and geeky are barely on the chart.

The word nerd rises almost in a straight line until the peak in 2004, from which it’s been slightly dropping. Tina Fey can’t pick up the slack alone! (No one knows what I’m talking about. Nerds.) Dorky declines strongly through 1983, maintaining a low level of consciousness through 1986, and then from 1987 to 1990 it almost disappears. The initial drop could be due to a change in slang at the close of the ’70s, although that doesn’t explain the strong decline in 1987. But the word rebounds to higher levels from 1990 to 1991 and enjoys a slow climb through 1997. That year, another sharp decline hits, and from 1998 through 2008, dorky is the least popular of the six terms.

Geek comes out of relative obscurity in 1980 and steadily rises through 1984. The term takes off in 1995, the year of Apple’s Think Different campaign and Windows 95, rising in popularity to its peak in 2008. If you look at nerdy, dork, and’geeky (purple, red, and yellow) from 1998 through 2008, they follow a similar trajectory.

And here we are in 2012. Regular folk are subscribed to the Twitter feeds of software and telecommunications companies. Ryan Seacrest is co-hosting CES with Steve Ballmer, along with various athletes and celebrities. It’s a very different world today than it was 25 years ago. The geeks are cool, and they are here to stay.

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14 Responses to When Did Geeks Get Cool?

  1. Dumbo74 January 11, 2012 at 12:18 PM CDT #

    Money. They became cool when they had the money and marketers had to try to get the money from them. Before that WASPs were cool. Remember before Animal House, and Revenge of the Nerds, and every John Cusack movie when rich preppies were the heroes? They had the money, so they were cool. 

  2. M. Gilden January 11, 2012 at 7:32 PM CDT #

    Just look at the faces of XDA-developers. When I was a regular there, it was mostly an underground group of firmware hackers and software developers. Now, they are now represented by folks with tattoos and multiple piercings. If you haven’t seen the new stars of XDA-TV, just google up SassiBob and Azrienoch.
    I’m a big fan of their content, but some of their videos border on NSFW. Sure didn’t used to be that way… 

  3. O5577o March 29, 2012 at 7:01 PM CDT #

    Ah, youth… Honey, geeks became cool to the slightly older generation than you in 1986. I was working at Microsoft and Aldus (Apple geeks only will remember them!) in the mid-80s, when MS went IPO, Apple had a cameo appearance in Forrest Gump (Forrest opening an envelope with the original, rainbow-colored logo), and the Apple interface trumped Windows via Xerox PARC. Just some history from an original grrl geek…

  4. Jeff Blanks March 31, 2012 at 11:03 AM CDT #

    “Geeks” (well, really, post-punk neo-beatnik hipsters playing the geek card”) have been cool ever since Elvis Costello–heck, maybe even Buddy Holly.  The secret is that what they really want to communicate is that they’re SO FUCKING COOL they can look like geeks and still be cool, not like those glam fag rock-star posers in their big hair and spandex or whatever.

  5. Jeff Blanks March 31, 2012 at 11:03 AM CDT #

    Oops–double-post removed.

  6. antigeek April 1, 2012 at 6:43 AM CDT #

    First I think your date referencing the use of the words: geek, dork and nerd are off, it’s way too late.Second, you haven’t determined the difference between being geeky/geek and how that differs in your chart. You’ve also based the assumption of geekiness on the usage and fondness
    of technology which I believe is not  a nuanced understanding of the
    term. Lastly, the fact that the self-styling of being a nerd or geek has reached a point of overkill, means that to be a geek or nerd is no longer cool since everyone claims to be one now.  The definition and population of geeks in society has now diluted the meaning, hence it is  meaningless, and definitely not cool.It parallels everyone having a tattoo – it’s not edgy, cool or ironic,
    it’s just common, therefore dull, banal and irrelevant as social

  7. facebook-711717333 April 10, 2012 at 2:12 AM CDT #

    We were always cool…you just didn’t notice :-D

  8. Omar T August 2, 2012 at 2:31 PM CDT #

    POWER – Cool mostly comes from power — “The Fonse” had power with the ladies back in those days.. The ‘Mobsters” in Chicago (Al Capone, etc) had businesses and financial power – but no morals so they were kind of cool but bad – bad for everyone but people still love The Godfather mafia movies. Then comes computers and internet and powerful, highly functional electronics like Video Game Consoles! Now someone that writes a program or makes a device can make something that is cool and fun or very powerful for your business environment and at the same time that person can become rich. Any time that someone can become RICH doing something they are sort of cool — EVEN IF IT IS MORALLY WRONG ( Mafia, Pirates – in the old days). OR Cool but still good – like gold prospectors, businessmen, inventors, movie producers/directors… etc..

    So these guys are making awesome gadgets or FUN GAMES or powerful programs (Windows, Accounting Softwares, Encryption Softwares, Search Engine Algorithms, Online Business like ebay and Amazon.. etc) and these things are actually good and highly functional for society and get POWER.. so people will say its cool.

    And will even get that guy LAID..! Maybe by one or two women, maybe more, but definitely I bet that whatever guy that invented and encryption software or a Cool Game can get at least a little bit of the p***y..! Maybe not get the guy Rock Star laid but definitely some…

    And then there is the Wealth aspect — Wealth would get anyone laid — I mean it got Bill Gates laid and like the article says he is epitomy of Geek in the 80’s . If a guy makes a software or video game or whatever it is safe to say he is getting paid for it also so there you go…

    When people are functional for society AND getting paid – then people will start to say they are ‘cool’ in that sense. Maybe not very ‘social-MTV style-cool’ like those little pansy a** annoying hipsters want to be but the other cool..

  9. MBiggs August 3, 2012 at 9:27 PM CDT #

    When you started having to work for them!

  10. HV January 15, 2013 at 11:05 AM CDT #

    yeah geeks got popular not in anyway was the term just reinvented to include anyone..

  11. Charlie M February 22, 2013 at 4:13 PM CDT #

    Geeks became cool to the public when they became famous billionaires.


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