Is Your Mother a Geek? Linguistics and the Ramones*

Besides being a great song on a great album (Leave Home), “Suzy is a Headbanger” by the Ramones also has a very interesting line:

Suzy is a headbanger,
Her mother is a geek.

These lyrics puzzled me because they didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I read the term “feed the geek” in Babel No More by Michael Erard (review forthcoming) that I decided to look into it. It turns out, the reason the lyrics didn’t make sense to me was because I was thinking of geek in its contemporary sense, the one Macmillan defines as “n. Someone who is boring, especially because they seem to be interested only in computers.” Even more recently, as we all know, the term has become to mean something like enthusiast or to describe a particular way of practicing some activity (as in geek sex). But since “Suzy” was written around 1976, those are obviously not the intended meanings.

The problem is, I’m having a hard time believing that Joey Ramone meant the other, older sense of the word. I looked at multiple dictionaries, but all of them basically defined this sense as “n. A carnival performer whose show consists of bizarre acts, such as biting the head off a live chicken.” Mmm! Mothers bring your daughters, fathers brings your sons!

So what’s going on? Did he really mean to sing geek? If he didn’t mean that Suzy’s mom is a circus freak and he couldn’t have meant that she’s a computer nerd, what did he mean? The song obviously portrays Suzy in a positive light, so was he doing something like Bob Dylan did in his song “Ballad of a Thin Man” and questioning what we think of as normalcy?

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.

– Bob Dylan, Ballad of the Thin Man

Or did geek have a meaning specific to punks in New York (or punks anywhere) in the 1970s?

There was a 70s Australian punk band in Perth called the Geeks, but knowing what I know about punk rockers, they tend to relish in classifying themselves as the outcasts. It’s a way to welcome someone in and strengthen group identity (The Ramones chant, “Gabba! Gabba! We accept you, we accept you! One of us!” perfectly encapsulates this notion). So were they saying that Suzy’s mom was one of them?

Besides the Perth band, I couldn’t find any connection of geek to the 1970s punk rock scene, so I decided to look at the Corpus of Contemporary American English. If geek was being used by the punks in the 70s, I assumed it was also being used by at least the music journalists as well. I just hoped it was being used in the same way. There were two hits for “geek.[nn1]” in the 1970s, both being the carnival kind of geek. The 1980s is where things start to change since there are five hits – two carnival geeks, two nerd geeks, and one I’m not really sure of (it’s hard to tell from the bit context). After that, the usage really takes off with thirty-three hits in the 1990s and 104 hits in the 2000s.

This still hasn’t answered my question, however. Certainly another word besides geek would fit there just as easily, especially if you’re rhyming it with “ooh ooh wee.” But there’s the catch. I want to conclude that Joey was speaking positively of Suzy’s mother, but that’s not realistic. Joey was most likely using geek to describe a disapproving mother.

Wordnik, which is a great site, lists one definition of geek as “n. An unfashionable or socially undesirable person.” Today there might be wide agreement on which type of person is a geek (because we’re all so cool, you know, man?), but what’s interesting is that in “Suzy is a Headbanger” we have a counter-culture band, who by no means owned the majority stake of Cool, using geek to insult a member of another group. But the reason he’s doing so is that he sees Suzy’s mother as being judgmental, which is not a trait often attributed to geeks. So there’s a disconnect between the connotations of the two meanings of geek, which suggests the term was in flux. Notice also that insulting someone else by calling them a geek is simultaneously an attempt to prove one’s cool, but that’s beside the point.

I think geek is a great case of how quickly words can change their meanings, something linguistics call “semantic shift.” It’s also a simple example of what linguistics mean when they say, “We’re not sure.” Words are tricky things to pin down, especially when they are ones that are used infrequently. Add to that someone using the word in a novel way (or at least with a slightly different meaning) and things get even trickier. Had Joey’s meaning taken off, we might today be using geek to describe older people who disapprove of the younger generation’s activities. Geek then would have a decidedly uncool meaning. Instead, being a geek is an aspiration since it means not only enthusiasm, but knowledge and mastership of a certain area. The success of this meaning of geek, of course, is obviously due to the success of computers and the success of geek as an adjective to be applied to any and all activities. In this way, later in Babel No More, Michael Erard can write, “Indeed, boasting about the languages one has studied or can speak is a display of geek machismo,” and everyone understands the meaning.

As a side note, for those interested in linguistics, semantic shift, or the etymology of contemptuous words, I recommend checking out Slate.com’s new podcast Lexicon Valley. They have two episodes and both are excellent. What’s even better, and even more pertinent to this article, is that in the second episode, entitled “The Other F-Word,” you get to hear linguist Arnold Zwicky reference Pansy Division. What a headbanger.

[Update – July 24, 2012] The Oxford Dictionaries blog has written twice about geek. The most recent post compares the collocates of geek to nerd in their corpus, while the older post explains the transformation in the meaning of geek. Sadly, there is no mention of the Ramones. Maybe it’s time for them to update their corpus?

Here are the posts:
Embrace Your Geekness – July 13, 2012
Are You Calling Me a Geek? Why, *Thank You* – March 4, 2011

 

 

 

*These are a few of my favorite things.

Advertisements