“Stan Carlisle stood well back from the entrance of the canvas enclosure, under the blaze of a naked light bulb, and watched the geek.”Thus begins William Lindsay Gresham’s wonderful novel Nightmare Alley (1946). And, just in case you have any doubt on the matter, I should explain that the geek in question is not a spotty-faced computer programmer with bad breath and glasses held together with sticking plaster. The modern meaning of geek (which I think might be described as a more intelligent and intense relative of the ‘nerd’) came much later.
Gresham describes the geek in lovingly repulsive detail. He is a wretched man wearing brown-dyed long johns and a curly black wig. His face is covered in brown greasepaint, presumably intended to make him into the caricature of some sort of exotic savage. The carnival caller outside his enclose tells the crowd that the geek was found on an uninhabited island five hundred miles off the coast of Florida. In his pen he is surrounded by lethargic snakes.
“Stan liked snakes,” (Gresham writes), “The disgust he felt was for them, at their having to be penned up with such a specimen of a man.”
Here in the outer pen, carnival visitors can see the geek surrounded by snakes for free. But that isn’t the main attraction. What people really want to see is the geek feeding. And to see that, they have to pay. Once he has a paying audience, the carnival caller takes a live chicken from a basket and throws it to the geek. Then the geek eats...
“How do you ever get a guy to geek?” (Stan asks) “Or is this the only one? I mean, is a guy born that way - liking to bite the heads off chickens.”The rest of the novel is, essentially, an answer to that question.
Gresham was fascinated by the carnivals in 1930s and ‘40s America and, in addition to the fictional carnival of Nightmare Alley, he wrote a non fiction book on the subject called ‘Monster Midway’ (1953). This book also describes the pathetic life of a geek.
"How do you find guys that will do things like that? I mean, biting the heads off chickens. Good God, man, do you find a guy doing that behind a barn somewhere and ... ?"The Cassell Dictionary of Slang claims that the word ‘geek’ was used in 19th Century America to mean ‘a clumsy, eccentric or offensive person’ and was only applied to carnival performers in the 20th Century. It suggests that the modern sense of the word came about in the '80s on US campuses and was initially used to describe someone who devotes too much time to his books.
"Kid, you don't find a geek. You make a geek."
"When you get hold of one of them fellows, he ain't a geek—he's a drunk. Or he's on the morph. He comes begging for a job. You tell him, ‘Well, I ain't got anything regular, but I got a temporary job. My wild man quit on me, and I got to get another to fill in. Meanwhile you can put on the wild man outfit and sit in the pit and make believe you're biting the heads off chickens and drinking the blood. 'Course you won't be biting the heads off. You'll have a razor blade hid in your hand, and when you pick up the chicken you'll give its neck a slit and let the blood run down your chin. Mind, it ain't a good job, but it'll give you a place to sleep ...’ "
"Well, you let him go on, faking the geek for a few days, and you see that he gets his bottle regular. Or his deck of 'M' so he can bang himself night and morning and keep the horrors away. Then you say one night after the show closes, 'You better turn in the stuff and hit the road after we close tomorrow night. I got to get me a real geek. You can't draw no crowd, faking it that way.' You slip him the bottle and you tell him, 'This is the last one you get.' You tell him that. He has all that night and all the next day to think it over. And the next night when you throw in the chicken—he'll geek."
Partridge’s Dictionary Of Slang says that ‘geek’ may have been a shortened form of ‘give us a peek’ and was used in Australia World War I. Possible derivations are German ‘gucken’ (to peep or peek) and Cornish dialect ‘geek’ (to look intently at). It suggests the possibility that the geek of the carnival was the lowest type of fairground performer, one that was merely stared or ‘geeked’ at. The French version of Wikipedia also quotes the Oxford American Dictionary (I don’t have a copy of this so have been unable to check) which suggests that the word derives from the middle German, ‘Geck’ (a fool). According to the Collins/German Dictionary, however, the modern German meaning of ‘Geck’ is a fop or a dandy, which seems to be miles away from either a chicken-eater or a computer programmer.
I’m not sure how to account for the meaning change from ‘a man who bites the heads off chickens’ to a person obsessed with technical stuff and computers. If it’s true that the word ‘geek’ started to be used for over-earnest students in '80s America (in other words, as a synonym for what I would have called a ‘swot’ when I was at school here in the UK), I suppose we might hypothesise that this was a general term of abuse for “one of life’s losers” (for some reason, many school students have a strong prejudice that study must be bad for you). In which case, when computing became an area of academic study, throughout the '80s, a ‘computer geek’ might simply have been a specific type of geek. Over time, the special designation might have been dropped so that any type of geek was likely to be good with computers. That said, specialist geek variants still abound as in ‘film geek’, ‘comic book geek’ and so on - to describe anyone who takes a nitpickingly obsessive interest in some particular subject. I guess I must be a ‘word geek’?
That, at any rate, is one possible explanation of the link between computer programmers and men who bite the heads off chickens. If you have any more information on this subject, please let me know.