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The Online Etymology Dictionary give the following for "geek": "sideshow freak," 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck "a fool, dupe, simpleton" (1510s), apparently from Low Ger. geck, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning "to croak, cackle," and also "to mock, cheat." The modern form and the popular use with reference to circus sideshow "wild men" is from 1946, in William Lindsay Gresham's novel Nightmare Alley (made into a film in 1947 starring Tyrone Power).
The billed performer's act consisted of a single geek, who stood in center ring to chase live chickens. It ended with the performer biting the chickens' heads off and swallowing them. The geek shows were often used as openers for what are commonly known as freak shows. It was a matter of pride among circus and carnival professionals not to have traveled with a troupe that included geeks. Geeks were sometimes alcoholics or drug addicts, and could be paid with liquor – especially during Prohibition – or with narcotics.
The term "geek show" is often applied to situations where an audience is drawn to a performance or show where the performance consists of a horrific act that is found distasteful but ultimately entertaining by masses. It may also be used by a single person in reference to an experience which he or she found humiliating but others found entertaining. It is used in derision.
References in pop culture
A geek show figures in the Katherine Dunn novel Geek Love (1989). Crystal Lil, the debutante mother of the freaks, met their father while performing as a geek during her summer break from university. Aloysius, the proprietor of the traveling circus, comments that college boys often toured as geeks during their summer breaks, but at the sight of the lovely Crystal Lil and her eagerness they made an exception. During a recounting of her time as a geek, Crystal remarks on how damaged her teeth were from biting the heads off chickens.
Bob Dylan's "Ballad of a Thin Man", from the 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited, makes a reference to the geek. It is directed at the 'straight' Mr Jones, who is unable to come to terms with the counter culture youth revolution around him:
- You hand in your ticket
- And you go watch the geek
- Who immediately walks up to you
- When he hears you speak
- And says, "How does it feel
- To be such a freak?"
- And you say, "Impossible"
- As he hands you a bone.
In the 1995 X-Files episode "Humbug", real-life sideshow performer The Enigma portrays a mostly-mute geek named "The Conundrum." True to geek form, his willingness to eat anything plays a crucial role in resolving the episode's plot.
In the film The Wizard of Gore there is a show that opens with "The Geek" (played by Jeffrey Combs) eating maggots and then bite the head off a rat.
In the first two episodes of "American Horror Story: Freak Show" there is a geek named Meep (played by Ben Woolf) who performs in the Freak Show biting heads off of baby chickens. He is eventually wrongfully arrested and murdered by the other inmates in prison.
In HBO's Carnivale Ben Hawkins' father, Henry Scudder, deserted the French Foreign Legion and fled to America where he eventually succumbed to alcoholism and worked as a sideshow geek at Hyde and Teller's carnival.
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