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Computer geek is a term for a person, male or female, who has above-average expertise in computer technology. A computer geek may be an expert in programming, networking or other specialized fields of computer science. He or she may use those skills in computer-specific careers or have more of a devoted hobbyist's interest. The term geek was originally used in a derogatory sense, but many computer professionals came to embrace the term and began using it as a badge of pride. The term has gained such popularity that fans of other professional and recreational pursuits also may describe themselves as geeks.
The word geek originated with American carnival workers, or carnies, of the 20th century. It referred to a person who traveled with the carnival freak show, biting the heads off chickens or other live animals. The modern usage seems to stem from how the carny geeks were shunned even by other carnies, who were themselves social outsiders. People who embrace the modern usage of the word do not deny this earlier definition; some geek T-shirts available in the 1990s and 2000s even emphasized the carny connection.
When computer programming became an essential part of many businesses in the 1990s, the term computer geek came into popular use, possibly because information technology (IT) departments and their workers were often isolated from other office workers. Computer geeks also were seen to possess a specialized knowledge that soon spawned its own culture and lingo, further separating them from the mainstream. Popular perception of the computer geek at the time was of a person with limited social skills but vast technical know-how. The portrayal of computer geeks in films and other popular media helped to solidify this perception of the subculture among both computer geeks and the mainstream populace.
The computer-tech world quickly embraced its geekdom in much the same way the homosexual community came to appropriate and accept terms initially coined as derogatory. Geek chic came into being in the 2000s as reliance on computer technology increased. Fans of previously marginalized pursuits, including comic books, animation, role-playing games, video games and various sciences, also began referring to themselves as geeks. Given the word’s derogatory origins, however, it should never be assumed that someone will take the term geek as a compliment.
IT professionals and computer hobbyists often proudly refer to themselves as computer geeks, because the term can describe someone with an extraordinary level of skill in his or her field. Part of this may be a result of the essential role the computer geek plays in a technological society. Secure in their position as facilitators of 21st century commerce, entertainment and information, computer geeks know they are unlikely to be shunned, social stereotypes notwithstanding.