The word punk has been around for hundreds of years. Shakespeare used the word in All’s Well That Ends Well, and he used it with the then-current meaning: prostitute. Over time the word’s specific meaning changed but it stayed generally the same: criminal, person of disrepute. In the 20th century it came to mean someone who had homosexual sex in prison. It came to mean ‘to back out of’ as well. Punk was used for hundreds of years, always negatively.
In 1971 Dave Marsh used the word punk in the pages of Creem to describe the music of ? And The Mysterians. He was certainly using it in the context within which he knew it previously, ie rough edged and disreputable. And as the decade went on punk became a thing; part of the appeal of the scene was its nihilistic refusal of societal standards, and embracing the negative context punk sobriquet was an important part of that. There was certainly violence in the early punk scene, but what it was really about was giving a hearty fuck you to the standard mores of the time, refuting not just the bland mainstream culture but also the lovey dovey hippie culture.
And punk was disreputable and scary, a subculture based entirely on scaring off the mainstream. But the mainstream can’t abide a good subculture, and like the white blood cells eating Donald Pleasence in Fantastic Voyage, the mainstream eventually consumed punk. By the mid-90s punk was the mainstream, with bands like Rancid and Green Day aping the earliest sounds of the movement on MTV and going platinum. Hot Topic, a store that specialized in punk and goth ephemera popped up in every mall in the nation. All of a sudden Manic Panic was in everybody’s hair and wearing Doc Martens up to your knees was perfectly acceptable.
Punk died. There are some who will claim it still rages on, and some who will tell you they’re living a punk lifestyle, but there’s nothing less punk rock than cosplaying like it’s 1979. It’s all pale echoes of something that was real and that got co-opted and destroyed. It’s what happens with great subcultures.
Now it’s happened with geeks. What happened with punk has pretty much completely happened with geek, and the final nail in the coffin was probably when Miss USA called herself a ‘history geek’ and talked about how she watched Game of Thrones on HBO. That coffin was fairly well constructed already - the biggest movies at the box office this summer are based on some of the lesser-known comic book characters, for pete’s sake - but there was a feeling of finality when I heard that.
It isn’t so much that she watches Game of Thrones - the ratings indicate that A LOT of people watch Game of Thrones, and that’s probably because HBO has a reputation as the place where you watch good TV shows on Sunday nights - but the ‘history geek’ thing. Like punk, geek used to be a bad word. It comes from the Old English for ‘freak’ and eventually came to be used for circus sideshows. The ‘geek show’ in some circuses involved a disgusting freak who sometimes bit the heads off of live chickens; as late as 1976 that was the only definition for geek in the dictionary (although Robert Heinlein had used it in a more modern sense back in the 50s).
Geek eventually came to be a version of nerd, a word that Dr. Seuss coined, believe it or not. In the early 50s Detroit area slang had nerd meaning a square, and by the 60s tech schools were using it to refer to people who studied all the time. (I don’t know the veracity of this but I love the anecdote on Wikipedia that says it was spelled knurd at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute because that’s ‘drunk’ spelled backwards, and nerds were the opposite of partiers). Neither geek or nerd were particularly nice words, and were probably thrown at generations worth of dweebs, forever scarring them.
I bring up nerd because it’s important to remember what these words originally meant. These words were used to make fun of people who were socially awkward, who had strange and insular hobbies and interests, and most importantly people who were smart. Plenty of stoners in the 70s and 80s liked the fantasy accoutrements of the sillier genres of heavy metal, but that didn’t make them nerds. One of the few places in pop culture that I’ve seen this particular divide addressed well is Freaks and Geeks, which understood the basic difference between the geeks - who were into nerdy stuff like D&D and Star Wars but who were also very smart - and the freaks - who could get into nerdy stuff like D&D and Star Wars but weren’t particularly smart.
That ‘smart’ aspect of the meaning has been stripped away. Geek or nerd now means ‘buff’ or ‘enthusiast,’ and what’s worse the words are now almost always self-applied. This is the brave new world of geeks and nerds, where having an interest - of any sort - in anything qualifies you as a geek or nerd. It’s sort of like how going to the Green Day musical on Broadway lets you say you like punk rock.
Now maybe Miss USA really is a history geek, but I kind of suspect that what she means is that she watches the History Channel as her default station in the background. If someone claims they’re a history geek I expect them to mean it - set up your vacation so that you follow the path of Sherman’s March, travel to Hawaii not for the beaches but to visit the Arizona, be able to give a pretty hardcore lecture about whatever period of history you like the best. I consider myself something of a history buff or enthusiast - I like to buy history books and when traveling I try to hit spots of historical interest - but I’m no history geek. My interest is passing, and I could probably drop some modestly interesting factoids in a party setting but that’s about it.
In the aftermath of the Miss USA thing some people have been getting ruffled about arguments over just what a geek is. There’s this whole network of geek girl blogs that mostly exist for the writers to crow about how much of a geek they are because they watch a lot of Torchwood, and these folks are the ones leading the charge to let everybody be a geek. Their argument: being a geek is about passion, which leads to such incredible pretzel logic as this:
And if passion truly defines one’s geekiness, then some of the planet’s geekiest people are sports fans. I know this is going to curdle your blood, true believers, but hear me out. They paint their faces and wear all manner of outfits to display their passion. Cosplay, much? They spend hundreds and thousands of dollars to live out their fantasies at sporting events or to find the rare Billy Martin card where he gives the cameraman the bird. And have you seen fantasy football?! It’s basically Dungeons and Dragons with athlete statistics.
But here’s the thing: passion doesn’t define your geekiness. It has nothing to do with your geekiness. Your geekiness is predicated on your level of expertise and intelligence on the subject but, let’s be honest, also on the subject’s inherent lack of societal acceptance. Again, we’re back at the punk thing. Being a punk was originally about embracing an outcast aesthetic and lifestyle; wearing those clothes, having that hair in the late 70s and early 80s was a very loud declaration to the rest of the world that it could fuck right off. Being a geek doesn’t just mean that you really like something, it means that you really like something that is going to baffle most of the rest of the public. And you’re also very smart about that thing.
There’s already a word for people who feel passionate about certain things. That word is fan. It’s been in use for a long time, and it still really works. A guy who likes to paint himself in his team colors is a sports fan, not a sports geek*. The generalized mass of people who just like fantasy stuff or comic book stuff or science fiction stuff has long been called fandom. A fanboy is someone who is very passionate about a genre or a property but probably isn’t too smart or critical about it. You can be a fanboy and not be a geek; a fanboy is more or less the comic book equivalent of the sports fan, someone who rabidly supports a character or a title but probably has very little objective, critical or intellectual understanding of it. And doesn’t truly want any, he just likes what he likes. He has passion, not intellect.
What’s sad is that the co-opting of ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ only continues to marginalize the real geeks and nerds. Over the last couple of decades there’s been a reclaiming of these words, sort of the four-eyed version of the way the gay rights movement reclaimed queer. But as the words have been reclaimed and defanged they’ve also gotten loose. Now all of a sudden one of the most beautiful women in the country gets to be a geek because she watches a very popular TV show. The connotations of geek used to be smart and socially awkward and obsessive, now it simply means having a strong interest. So now what do the real geeks and nerds, the ones who can’t win beauty pageants and the ones who create extensive concordances of the characters in George RR Martin’s world just because they want to have that information at their fingertips, call themselves? The cool kids didn’t just start sitting at their table, they’ve completely taken it over. What’s the new nerd table?
Every subculture of any value gets sucked up by the mainstream. It’s just the way it works. It’s sad to see geekdom get blanded out and stripped of any real meaning outside of a buzz word for a certain kind of mega-popular summer movie, but the good news is that the end of a subculture opens the way for a new one. The death of punk opened up lots of new musical avenues, peaking in the indie revolution of the late 80s and 90s (which, of course, got totally co-opted as well, but so it goes). In a perfect world for us awkward, intelligent types the mainstream would just be happy using the word ‘fan’ and leave us be, but they won’t. So now something new will rise, something more niche - or maybe a whole new set of niches. This is asymmetrical cultural warfare; you may win some ground today, mainstream, but all you do is make us go further underground, get smarter and be better. And in five years when you’ve found us and want to make the next Big Bang Theory using our droppings, we’ll have moved on to something else.
In the end this isn’t about a certain kind of property going mainstream. Lord of the Rings and the Marvel Universe and Star Wars all went mainstream because they’re essentially good stories well-told, and I don’t begrudge Miss USA for being into Game of Thrones anymore than some ragtime obsessive would begrudge her being into Boardwalk Empire. Hey, it’s great that the things I like are good enough to be enjoyed by lots of people. I don’t think The Clash are any worse simply because everybody knows a couple of their songs. But just as putting safety pins in your clothes doesn’t make you a punk, really liking a TV show enough to catch it live instead of on TiVo doesn’t make you geek.
* Were one to make an argument for the existence of a sports geek, one would point out the relatively few sports fans who have obsessive understandings of statistics and team line-ups that go back to the 1920s. If someone could name you the line-up of the Troy Trojans in 1881 and their batting statistics we might have a sports geek on our hands.