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:
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.