by Scott Berinato

The Origins of “Geek” and Other Terms of Note

May 01, 20073 mins
IT Leadership

The words we use shape our thoughts. Here's where some of those words come from.

In the circus, a performer who sank sufficiently low would do horrible things (like biting the heads off live chickens) for booze money. That poor soul was called a geek. How it came to describe techies is unknown.

During the Civil War, the cheapest cigar you could buy cost two pennies. “Two-center” cigars became synonymous with cheapness, and by the late 1800s, people who wanted to project faux-humility would offer their two cents’ worth, and they still do in your meetings today.

In the 1600s, a formal meal would start with eggs and end with apples. Thus, the meal went from eggs to apples. By the mid-20th century, meals began with soup and ended with fruit and nuts, which is why you manage ERP projects from soup to nuts.

A scandal erupted during the Civil War when some textilers sold the army uniforms made out of the scraps left over from their wool-making processes. This cheap fabric was called shoddy. In no time the noun turned into an adjective, which is why you tell your developers that they write shoddy code.

In Victorian England, policy and legislation were delivered to Parliament in gigantic books with blue covers called, not surprisingly, Blue Papers. Lesser, shorter government business was delivered in smaller books with white covers. That’s why IDC sells you a white paper and not a blue paper.

Speaking of England, Brits who traveled to India met Hindi scholars who taught religion and law. They were known as pandits. Soon enough, scholarly Londoners were being called pundits, and that’s what we call our esteemed CIO columnist Michael Schrage.

Europeans also borrowed ideas from Persia, like the graceful, outdoor pavilions used in Turkey for public meetings. The Turks called them kiushks. In the West, these pavilions were put to more prosaic uses, like selling newspapers. Now kiosks are any place—or website—for public notices and peddling.

On busy roads in the 1500s, horses’ hooves dashed mud and water on the carriages they pulled, so leather aprons and wooden planks—dashboards—were mounted on the fronts to block the splatter. And that’s why that set of gauges on the screen in front of you is a dashboard too.

In the 1800s, New England loggers took bales of hay into the forest with them to feed their horses. These bales were bound with thin wire that was also used to make small repairs to the loggers’ equipment. The more that stuff broke, the more wire the loggers needed. If they ended up using a lot of wire, they were derisively called haywire outfits. Linguistically, the fix (the wire) merged with the breakdown, and a process that needed a lot of fixes is said to be going haywire, as many of your gadgets are surely doing right now.

Before sentencing a prisoner to death in ancient Ireland, the judge would don a “cap of death” or cie bais. In Gaelic, cie bais is pronounced ky-bosh. Now you put the kibosh on expensive software projects going nowhere…like those Wi-Fi kiosks that would provide public access to the network dashboard, especially after you read a pundit’s two cents’ worth in a white paper on one soup-to-nuts deployment that went haywire because of shoddy development practices by geeks.