Laan van Nieuw Oost-Indië 275, The Hague, The Netherlands +31(0)70 365 46 77

Word of the Day: gek (fool)

‘Did you know, that the English word ‘geek’ is related to Dutch GEK?’ asked Charles, a good friend of mine, who works in the Central Library and who told me about a ‘vergadering’ (meeting) at which several libraries discussed the worldwide ‘Geek the Library campaign’. GEK, I know, but what are ‘geeks’?


Geekism is a trend that arose in the mid 2000s when people realized that nerds and geeks are ruling the world of information technology. Undoubtedly the present emperor of Geekworld is Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. His subjects in the virtual world are ‘nerds’, ‘freaks’, ‘artists’, ‘geniuses’ and ‘fools’.

Charles is very good at posing as an agile man of the world of management, but I suspect that he is a serious language geek at heart. The ‘Geek the Library campaign’ aims at raising the awareness of the benefits and values which public libraries have for individuals as well as communities.

Because the public library is rapidly losing its value as a storage place for printed books, DVDs and CDs, it has no choice but to reinvent itself in order to survive. The library of the future could survive as a meeting place for ‘geeks’ with their weird passions and obsessions: science, math, computer, history, gaming, language, art, literature, dogs or whatever. The library should geek itself before it is too late and rename itself. Public Geekhouse, perhaps?

‘No’, I said after having decided not to try and bluff myself out of his question. ‘No, Charles, I had no idea that GEK and “geek” are fruits of the same tree.’ Immediately after I got home, I looked up GEK in Nicoline van der Sijs’ Etymologiebank and her book on the Dutch influence on the American language (from 2009) but could not find any references there to ‘geek’. So I went to its British equivalent ‘etymonline’ and lo and behold:

‘Geek (n.): “sideshow freak” 1916, U.S. carnival and circus slang, perhaps a variant of geck “a fool, dupe, simpleton” (1510s), apparently from Low German “geck”, from an imitative verb found in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian meaning “to croak, cackle,” and also “to mock, cheat.”’

Charles is right: GEK and ‘geek’ are family. Middle Dutch ‘ghec’ means ‘fool’ or ‘court jester’ but it can also signify ‘madman’, ‘madwoman’ or ‘lunatic’. In today’s world other names for fool cropped up in other languages: German ‘Verrückte’ or ‘Idiot’. French: ‘fou’. English: ‘fool’ or ‘lunatic’. Only Dutch retained GEK.

GEK as an adjective can have a wide variety of meanings ranging from mad, crazy, insane, via idiotic, silly, stupid, foolish, to ridiculous, strange, weird and even fond, great and fantastic.

‘Hij is zo gek als een deur’, literally: ‘crazy as a door’ (why a door?) -> ‘mad as a hatter’ exists next to ‘Zij is gek op chocola’ (she is crazy about chocolate). In the seventies my generation found everything that was fantastic ‘te gek’, but this expression has now gone out of fashion.

GEKTE (insanity) and genius go hand in hand sometimes. ‘Een geniale gek’ is a ‘mad genius’. Geeks sometimes behave as if they are GEK, weird. Concepts like GEKTE, ‘madness’ or ‘psychiatric disorder’ are not purely medical concepts. Our attitude towards the mentally ill is also determined by socio-cultural and ideological structures.

GEK in the Middle Ages is not at all as GEK, weird as today’s GEK, now the world seems to be populated with people suffering from disorders like autism, schizophrenia, ADD, borderline, etc.

There are two interesting museums in the Dutch speaking world that give a disturbing insight into the changing worlds of madness. In Holland’s Haarlem this museum is called Het Dolhuys (Fool’s house) and in Flanders’ Gent Museum Dr. Guislain.

GEKTE, insanity, foolishness has been the subject of many literary texts in the world from the earliest times in recorded history. In the beginning of the sixteenth century the Dutch Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536) wrote the bestseller ‘In Praise of Folly’. The Latin title was ‘Stultitiae Laus’ and the Dutch title: ‘Lof der Zotheid’. ‘Zot’ is another word for GEK.

In this wonderfully funny book the main character and narrator is ‘foolishness’. Because the entire world is viewed from the perspective of Folly, everything seems very absurd indeed.

Read it. Become an Erasmus book geek, go to your nearest Public Geekhouse and demand that all of Erasmus’ books are on loan again in what is left of our storage house.