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695: Freak

To streak or fleck randomly, or perhaps a brave Scottish man, or maybe imprudent. Whatever linguistic base you choose to look at, the word freak has had a surprisingly similar usage for the last 500 years or so. Then again, freak may have also come from the linguistic base meaning that one moves nimbly or briskly.

Whatever base it came from, the word freak has been used in a variety of ways in the English language, from an insult to a term of endearment. While “freak” was often utilized as a word to describe those that had something extremely unusual about their appearance — either by choice or by nature in the early 1900s, it became a word reclaimed to mean something positive. Quoting from Wikipedia’s article about the word itself:

In the United States of the 1960s, especially during the heyday of the hippie counterculture on the west coast, many teens and young adults that were disillusioned with the austere confines of the postwar, suburbanite American way of life, and the resultant countercultural and New Left movements defined themselves as “freaks”. American musician and composer Frank Zappa and his band The Mothers of Invention were central to the freak scene in the mid to late 1960s, both in the Los Angeles/San Francisco Bay Area music scene and in New York City, where the band had a now infamous residency at the Garrick Theatre. ‘”On a personal level”, wrote Zappa, “Freaking out is a process whereby an individual casts off outmoded and restricted standards of thinking, dress and social etiquette in order to express CREATIVELY his relationship to his environment and the social structure as a whole”‘.

Reclaiming a word can be – and often is – quite messy. We’ve talked about that particular effort in past episodes. Freak can be a particularly difficult word to reckon with, but if you do choose to reckon with it… what conclusion have you come to?