In current usage, the word "freak" is commonly used to refer to a person with something strikingly unusual about their appearance or behaviour. This usage dates from the so-called freak scene of the 1960s and 1970s.
An older usage refers to the physically deformed, or having extraordinary diseases and conditions, such as sideshow performers. This has fallen into disuse, except as a pejorative, and (among the performers of such shows) as jargon. "Freaks" of this kind can be classified into two groups: natural freaks and made freaks. A natural freak would usually refer to a genetic abnormality, while a made freak is a once normal person who experienced or initiated an alteration at some point in life (such as receiving surgical implants).
"Freak" continues to be used to describe genetic mutations in plants and animals, i.e. "freaks of nature." "Freak" can also be used in a verb form, and can mean: "to become stressed and upset". Usually, in this form, the word is followed by "out" to complete the phrase, "freaking out". However, this meaning and usage is usually considered slang. Adjectival forms include "freakish" as well as "freaky." The verb "freaking" (or, "freaking out") means "engaging in panicked or uncontrolled behavior"--for example, as the result of psychedelic drug use. "Freaking" may also be a minced oath used in place of "fucking," e.g. "Oh my freaking God!" The word is a homophone of "phreak" (referring to the illegal hacking of telephone systems), which it probably inspired.
'Freak' can also be seen being used as a surname, derived from French and Scottish heritage. Meaning, through interpretation 'keeper of the plains', the name is rarely seen but exists in some numbers. A notable carrier of the surname 'Freak' is Reece Freak, noted philanthropist and industrialist of Adelaide, South Australia.
In early science, there were many theories concerning the existence of natural abnormalities. Many of the theories led to pseudo-sciences that are still adhered to by some. One persistent pre-19th century superstition is that, if a pregnant woman is scared by someone or something, the child would be born with the quality that caused the fear. (The widely accepted scientific theory regarding inherent qualities is that of mutation).
In some religions since ancient times, the birth of abnormal offspring has been associated with astrological or supernatural events. Karma is also believed in some eastern religions to be a cause of abnormalities. In other faiths, the cause is attributed to direct intervention by the will of God. In ancient Roman religion, for instance, biological abnormalities of animals and humans were monstra ("monsters"), and regarded as evidence of divine displeasure or discord in the cosmos.
Frank Zappa and the freak subculture
In the United States of the 1960s, especially during the heyday of the hippie counterculture on the west coast, many teens and young adults, disillusioned with the austere confines of the postwar, suburbanite American way of life and the resultant countercultural and New Left movements defined themselves as "freaks". American musician and composer Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention were central to the freak scene in the mid to late 1960s, both in the Los Angeles/San Francisco Bay Area music scene and in New York, where the band had a now infamous residency at the Garrick Theatre.
'"On a personal level", wrote Zappa in what should have been a put-on but wasn't, "Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricted standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his environment and the social structure as a whole"'.
The freaks, by Zappa's reckoning, resisted the binaries of right versus left, dominant culture versus counterculture, or squares versus hippies, preferring instead to align themselves with an aesthetic not narrowly defined by fashion or political leanings. The concept also allowed The Mothers to celebrate the freak identity, which until then was used to describe perversions of nature or carnivalesque sideshows. 'Bearded and gross and filthy, entirely obscene, they...were freaks. They were meant to be. They were playing the same old game again, épater la bourgeoisie, but this time round it wasn't called Dada or Existentialism or Beat, it was Freak-Out'.
Zappa also used images from the film Freaks  directed by Tod Browning on one of his album sleeves Tinseltown Rebellion as it was a source of inspiration to him in his dichotomic vision of Freaks versus Hippies.
At the first Mothers of Invention concerts, audience members were invited to "freak out!" (also the title of the band's first album), which meant to express themselves freely, be it through dancing, screaming, or letting a band member spray them with whipped cream. In terms of concert culture, the freak mentality influenced similar bands of subsequent musical generations.
The freaks, with their aggressively anti-social stance, came in for much criticism, not only from conventional culture but from within the counterculture itself, for their 'pretext of a theoretically total but actually quite false revolt against the "conventional lies of civilization"'. John Lennon sang how '"freaks on the phone won't leave me alone"', explaining how he was 'sick of all these aggressive hippies or whatever they are, the Now Generation...demanding my attention as if I owed them something...under a delusion of awareness by having long hair and that's what I'm sick of'. Dylan also suffered from 'Dylan freaks...once more trying to force him to live up to their concept of what he should be'. In a not atypical exchange, he'd be told '"you've got to live up to your responsibility as a culture hero - you're DYLAN, man, every freak has a soft spot in heir heart for ya...you're DYLAN, DYLAN, DYLAN."' only for him to reply '"I'm not Dylan, you're Dylan"'.
The word "freak" is also used these days by people who intentionally choose to alter their physical appearance by artificial means. The motivation for the change may be bravado, a lifestyle choice (an example of this is The Enigma, rockstar Marilyn Manson or the band Murderdolls), a reaction to a disfiguring accident, an attempt to stay young, or a symptom of body dysmorphic disorder. There are various types of "made freaks", each of which may be used to create an effect which would make the person a freak.
Taken from the Tahitian word tatu or tatau, and incorporating Japanese traditional irezumi ("insertion of ink") methods, tattooing became very popular among sailors, and then caught on with bikers and others who like to have permanent artwork on their skin. Today "made freaks" are often associated with having excessive tatooing all over the body, as in the case of The Enigma.
Unusual hair coloring and styles such as spikes, mohawks, dreadlocks, and other uncommon styles designed to look as far from 'normal' hairstyles as possible, are still associated with punk, although those styles were not popular at the time of punk rock's emergence in the 1970s. It is possible to look at the 1961 movie The Rebel starring Tony Hancock and see representations of Paris artists with blue, green or crimson dyed hair and black clothing, parodying the antics of the surrealists or, looking back through old magazines and news items from the 1950s, to see news of British rock and roller Wee Willie Harris with his pink hair or Peter Sellers' early 60s comedy reference to a rock singer dying his "hair a luminous green" in the song "I'm So Ashamed".
Body piercing has been around since ancient times, and has been attributed mystical significance. These days, it is often regarded by those who use it as an enhancement of one's natural appearance, as with most forms of body modification. Piercing of the face (especially ears and lips) has been integrated into teenage fashion, along with the subsequent stretching of these piercings by inserting increasingly larger jewelry into the healed fistula.
Medical implants are becoming more common. Speculative fiction and futurology conjecture that this trend may continue to the point where the line between human and machine becomes very blurred. According to the philosophy of transhumanism, technologies such as cybernetics will enable humans to transcend their current physical limitations. The philosophy prescribes a new kind of evolutionary mutation which transcends biology.
- David Wardle, Cicero on Divination, Book 1 (Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 102.
- Nik Cohn, AwopBopaLooBopaLopBamBoom: Pop from the Beginning (Paladin 1973) p. 223
- Cohn, p. 222
- G. Legman, Rationale of the Dirty Joke Vol I (Panther 1973) p. 20
- Jan Wenner ed., Lennon Remembers (Penguin 1971) p. 96
- Anthony Scaduto, Bob Dylan (London 1973) p. 287
- Craig McGregor, Bob Dylan: a Retrospective (London 1973) p. 266
- Do It! quoted in John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (London 1972) p. 52