Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"Get Your Geek On" at Public Libraries

There's a new campaign to boost awareness of U.S. public libraries that goes by the curious name, "Geek the Library." I'm all for the campaign's stated mission of improving public perceptions of libraries by championing their importance to local communities. But what really fascinates me is the way they're using geek as a transitive verb to mean "be geekily enthusiastic about." I guess you could say I geek innovative uses of the word geek.

The "Geek the Library" campaign, initiated by the nonprofit library cooperative OCLC with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, began last year on a pilot basis in Georgia and Iowa, and now it has expanded nationally. If you go to the campaign's website, you'll see exhortations to "get your geek on" and "share what you geek." The creative extension of geek as a verb is explained by a mock dictionary entry:

geek, verb
1. To love, to enjoy, to celebrate, to have an intense passion for.
2. To express interest in.
3. To possess a large amount of knowledge in.
4. To promote.

The campaign has enlisted some celebrities to share what they "geek." Lou Reed geeks art, while Brian Dennehy geeks schooners. Additionally, visitors to the site are encouraged to "show off what you geek." Thus, for instance, Bri Hughes of the Apostrophe Catastrophe blog says she geeks word origins. This video from the campaign's YouTube channel provides a range of geeky passions:

There are several intriguing linguistic aspects to the campaign. First, it represents the ongoing reclamation of the term geek, which a century ago was a strictly derogatory epithet — either for a foolish, worthless person or for a carnival performer specializing in such acts as biting the heads off live chickens. It eventually became used on college campuses to refer to students who were overly studious and socially inept, joining such other labels as wonk, dweeb, and nerd. Then in the 1980s, computer geeks began to wear the term as a badge of honor, even leading to geek chic by the '90s.

Now that the geeks have inherited the earth, from Microsoft's Bill Gates (a funder of "Geek the Library") down to Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg (lately showing his own philanthropic impulses), it's hard to think of geek as simply a put-down for disliked brainiacs. As geek has become a more acceptable term, it has spawned a number of lexical offshoots: geeks get geeked or geeked out about the topics that excite them, indulge in geekfests, and achieve geekdom in geeksville. Best Buy has its Geek Squad, and fans of the TV show Glee proudly call themselves gleeks.

The "Geek the Library" campaign adds a number of twists to the story of geek. "Get your geek on" is a subtle nod to "Get Ur Freak On," a 2001 song by Missy Elliot that helped popularize a trend of "get your X on" constructions. (As discussed on the American Dialect Society mailing list, the founding phrase is likely "get your groove on," attested from the early '90s.) But it's the transitive verb that is truly innovative, since it was previously only possible to "geek out about" or "get geeked about" something, rather than simply geeking it.

It's also significant that the campaign encourages supporters to profess their enthusiasm in the form "I geek X" and generates swag that shows these proclamations with the word geek in red. As noted by the blogger Lost in Translation DC, this recalls the use of the heart icon to stand for love, as in "I ♥ X." The "I ♥ NY" tourism campaign, dating back to the mid-'70s, is the original template, but it has since given way to all manner of variations: see Erin O'Connor's Snowclones Database for a number of examples. Threadspot has some creative T-shirts riffing on the form, often using another icon in the place of a heart. (My favorite T-shirt meta-slogan is "I ♥ transitive pictograph verbalizations.")

The popularity of the heart rebus (which in text messaging is typed as "<3") has even led to the word heart being used as a verb in the place of love. I first noticed people saying heart in this fashion around the time that the movie I ♥ Huckabees was released in 2004 — the movie title tended to be pronounced as "I Heart Huckabees" and was often spelled that way too. At the time, Geoffrey Pullum and Arnold Zwicky of Language Log took note of this emerging phenomenon, but since then heart has become a fully functioning verb for many, synonymous with love but with a decidedly facetious or lighthearted air about it. (Take, for instance, the declaration of love for Lady Gaga that appeared in New York magazine last year: "Heart you so bad, Gaga.")

The "I geek X" promotion plays with this form, though the word geek isn't given an iconic representation. So far, the campaign seems to be working well, and I haven't heard any complaints about the new verbing of geek. Librarians and their patrons have embraced their inner geek, and there's no turning back.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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