Only a few weeks into the new school year in Canada, some apparent anti-discrimination advocates in the Durham District School Board of Ontario have wasted no time in spelling out—quite literally—what constitutes unacceptable school behaviour. Teachers in the region were recently provided with a 19-page booklet of language guidelines, urging them to avoid gender- and race-specific language, as well as terms such as manpower, mankind, and common man.
Along with instructing teachers to avoid telling racist jokes in class, the document also recommends the avoidance of national adjectives—for example, instead of calling someone Pakistani or Korean, teachers are urged to say “a person from Pakistan” or “a person from Korea.”
While the School Board has lauded its own initiative, some Canadians— including a representative of federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney—have found the language policing misguided. Misgivings about the document are well founded. Because many of the words, including immigrant, are not traditionally insulting, teaching someone to be sensitive about something that isn’t offensive only teaches them to take offense at something new.
According to a spokesperson for the board, no language specialists were consulted in the creation of these guidelines, but offensive language is as much as issue for linguistics as it is for teachers and principals. A word is a word, regardless of the feelings it hurts, but feelings cannot be ignored if the word is to have meaning (and thus be a word). Rather than spell out the most obvious objections to the document—as many commentators in Canada have been having fun doing—it might prove more constructive to consider how some other, genuinely insulting words have become common currency in society and even educational contexts, as well as where formerly insulting words have become acceptable within specific circles.
Consider, for example, the word geek, which, though no doubt deprecating, has been gaining acceptability for the last three decades. It can be found most notably in the names of a cult television show (Freaks and Geeks), books (Wil Wheaton’s Just a Geek, Luke Jackson’s Geeks’ Guide to World Domination), music (The Geeks Shall Inherit the Earth by I Fight Dragons), and even advertising (Best Buy’s Geek Squad), all of which are the products of self-proclaimed geeks themselves.
American president Barack Obama is considered by many commentators to be the first geek president; he is apparently a tech fanatic, likes comic books, and even logged a Q&A session on the networking site reddit.com last month. According to The Atlantic’s Alexis C. Madrigal, he did not actually say anything during the session that he would not have said in any other forum…but he did consolidate his reputation as a geek.
Make no mistake—geek is an insult. Though it remains American slang, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word has achieved global currency, with meanings ranging from the highly specific sense of an introverted enthusiast to synonymy with nerd (often distinguished as a geek good with science and numbers). Although dictionaries often avoid or short-change the word, native terms for geek exist in other languages as well.
Swedish offers insnöad, literally a person snowed in and thus a little crazy (think ‘cabin fever’), while Faroese has ørvitisfiskur, which is literally a confused pilot whale. The negativity of both metaphors is emphasized by their cultural significance. In the Faroe Islands, for example, the surrounding, confusing, and mass slaughtering of pilot whales (grindadráp) is a continuing tradition. In Spanish, geek is usually translated friki, but it is sometimes translated as ganso “goose”, which in Cuba is also slang for a homosexual man. Incidentally, Geek Pride Day, celebrated annually on 25 May, originated in Spain. Bilingual speakers, with English, of these and other languages likely do not use geek interchangeably, but even if they do, the word carries its own baggage.
Some might recall its reference to nineteenth-century North American circus freaks and performers who, among other feats, would bite the heads off chickens — entertainers referred to in earlier European circuses as Gecken. Almost a hundred years old in its present form, but deriving from the obscure dialectal form, geck, geek appears to have originated in Low German, passed into High German dialects, eventually being adopted—in forms ranging from the Danish gjæk to the Icelandic gikkr—by most of the Scandinavian languages as well.
The word originally appears to have meant “a fool or simpleton” in the sense of being an easy target; Shakespeare used geck in Twelfth Night, and George Eliot in Adam Bede. As far back as it can be traced, geek referred directly to dunces, freaks, and easy targets. Its Indo-European root is believed to be ghāi, which, related to our words gape and gap, indicates emptiness, or the absence of substance. It is tempting to assume, then, that the use of the root to insult had its origins in the idea of being empty-headed or insignificant, perhaps even being a nobody. The absence of documentation nevertheless makes such guesses exercises in folk etymology. Like moron, however, which comes to us from the Greek for “stupid”, geek is pure insult, not simply a slur upon an otherwise identifiable group.
Geek does not figure among the Durham’s District School Board’s list of protected groups, perhaps because it does not discriminate on the basis of race, nationality, religion, gender, or sexuality. It is not so convenient. Perhaps it is because, like the word queer among gay men, bitch in certain women’s circles, as well as an example from African-American communities that can’t politely be restated, geek is an insult in a state of seeming appropriation. The geeks are taking back geek, it might appear, as socially awkward enthusiasts of unorthodox subjects all across the English-speaking world embrace the word as a societal label. And as a result of apparent consent—as its targets dismiss its pejorative connotations in mildly self-deprecating style—geek appears to be gaining acceptance. The term is, for example, often applied by the media to everyone who enjoys a good science fiction, fantasy, or superhero film, despite the fact that these films appear to be enjoyed by almost everyone. The expression geeking out, once reserved for certain subjects, can now refer to an unselfconscious and detailed outpouring of enthusiasm over almost any subject.
Should, then, the Durham District School Board discourage geek too? As with the distinction between Pakistani and “someone from Pakistan”, perhaps the board can allow geek, but disallow its adjective, geeky, which is generally more pejorative. But consider the other examples of appropriated language, including queer and bitch—are they insulting if used within their own peer groups? However many people call themselves geeks, those who have been called it by their detractors recognize it as an insult. Perhaps teachers should only use or allow the word geek among members of the chess club, and forbid it for everyone else.
These suggestions and scenarios are all, of course, facetious. Any word can be insulting or not in the right context, and because the school language guidelines fail to recognize this, they appear more part of an elitist experiment than a document about sensitivity. Rather than put linguistic band-aids over perceived sociocultural wounds, the teachers of Durham Region would be better off exercising their own discretion, and relying on that most ironically named faculty, common sense.
Harley J. Sims is a writer and independent scholar living in Ottawa, Canada. He can be reached on his website at www.harleyjsims.webs.com