A British dictionary has chosen “geek” as its word of the year. It comes only a few months after the same dictionary changed its definition of the term to be more of a positive.
The verdict comes from the Collins Online Dictionary, which picked it from a shortlist of a dozen terms. It’s a somewhat unusual choice as normally such word of the year awards are only won by a relatively new term that has come to prominence.
Geek qualified because its primary definition changed in the Collins dictionary this year. The term, which dates back to carnival performers who would bite the heads off large birds, was originally listed in the printed Collins dictionary as a general negative term for people with limited social skills.
In 2003 the dictionary was updated with a new secondary meaning, “A person who is preoccupied with or very knowledgeable about computing.” That was later upgraded to be the primary definition.
In September this year, the dictionary’s editors decided to completely change the definition to reflect trends in usage. The listed meaning is now:
“a person who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about a specific subject.”
As the image above shows, the dictionary is still acknowledging that the term can have negative connotations.
A spokesman for the dictionary explained why “geek” had won the word of the year award. “This change in meaning represents a positive change in perceptions about specialist expertise, and is a result of the influence of technology on people’s lives in 2013. The idea of future generations inheriting a more positive definition of the word ‘geek’ is something that Collins believes is worth celebrating.”
The Collins blog also quoted Holly Smale, author of Geek Girl, as saying: “In all its shifting forms, all “geek” has ever really meant is ‘a failure to fit into the social norm’. In taking the word back we’re recognizing that difference and individualism are qualities to be celebrated and encouraged, not used to attack others. For children especially it’s an important and significant shift, and one I couldn’t be prouder to champion.”
Perhaps inevitably, given the emphasis on relatively new words and usage, many of the shortlisted terms related to technology. Examples include Bitcoin, phablet and Cybernat (a supporter of Scottish independent who campaigns heavily online). There were also mentions for two terms which came to prominence thanks to social media: twerking and Harlem Shake.
And yes, ancient as it may be thanks to the rapidly changing pace of Internet memes, the Harlem Shake did only come to prominence in February this year.
While “geek” is already in the Collins dictionary, the other shortlisted terms won’t necessarily be included. Editors will wait to see if they become more established or prove quickly outdated.