A freak is a person who is physically deformed or transformed due to an extraordinary medical condition or body modification. This definition was first attested with this meaning in the 1880s as a shorter form of the phrase "freak of nature", itself a broader term meaning "whimsy or caprice of nature", attributed at least as far back as 1847.[1] The term's original neutral connotation became entirely negative during the 20th century; therefore, freak with its literal meaning of "abnormally developed individual" is viewed purely as a pejorative today.[2][3] However, the term is also recently used playfully to refer to an enthusiast or obsessive person.

Joseph Merrick, c.1889


Freak saw usage as jargon by promoters and performers of freak shows, though its use in this sense has decreased along with the popularity of freak shows.[4] One well-known example of this word was in reference to Joseph Merrick, the "Elephant Man."[5] As a jargon, side-show freaks were classified into two groups: natural freaks and self-made freaks.[6] A natural freak would usually have been born with a genetic abnormality, while a self-made freak was a person who was altered artificially (with methods such as surgical implants).

The term has a variety of much more recent meanings. An example is something strikingly unusual about one's appearance or behavior. This usage originated from "freak scene" during the 1960s and 1970s, most famously promoted by the album Freak Out! made by the rock band The Mothers of Invention.

A recent usage of freak is as a synonym for enthusiast, such as a health freak[7]; or referring to obsessive behavior, such as control freak.[8]

In science

Freak is used in science to describe plants and animals with a genetic mutation.[9][10]

See also


  1. ^ "freak". Oxford English Dictionary (Online ed.). Oxford University Press. (Subscription or participating institution membership required.)
  2. ^ Sherman, Howard (26 September 2014). "'Freak' is a slur and 'Freak Show' is propagating it. Disabled people deserve better". The Guardian.
  3. ^ Chemers, M (2008). Staging Stigma: A Critical Examination of the American Freak Show. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 7. ISBN 978-0-230-61066-8.
  4. ^ The Rise and Fall of Circus Freakshows https://priceonomics.com/the-rise-and-fall-of-circus-freakshows/
  5. ^ Joseph Merrick at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  6. ^ Stephens, Elizabeth (2005). "Twenty-First Century Freak Show: Recent Transformations in the Exhibition of Non-Normative Bodies". Disability Studies Quarterly. 25 (3). doi:10.18061/dsq.v25i3.580. Retrieved June 18, 2021.
  7. ^ For example, in the name of the British television show, Teenage Health Freak.
  8. ^ Harper, Douglas. "freak". Online Etymology Dictionary. Retrieved 2020-04-01.
  9. ^ "Human and animal freaks of nature". New Scientist. 7 January 2009.
  10. ^ Whitfield, John (January 2009). "Freaks are forcing scientists to rethink evolution". New Scientist. 201 (2690): 42. Bibcode:2009NewSc.201...42W. doi:10.1016/S0262-4079(09)60103-2.