Article in Salon Magazine

During the nineteenth century in America, a “geek” was a carnival performer or wild man who would bite the head off a live chicken or snake—and swallow it. His job was to warm up the audience for the main show that followed. It drew on a similar act performed a century earlier by circuses in Austria-Hungary, where people called gecken—or “freaks”—were used as attention-getters. The word survives today in the Dutch language as gecken meaning “crazy.”

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