A reader is puzzled by a new permutation of the word hack:
The word “hack”, until recently, meant to break into someone’s Internet account or system. Now I see it meaning “tips” or “suggestions”. Am I correct?
Like this reader, the only meaning that hack held for me in regard to computers was as a verb meaning “to illegally enter a computer system.” I too was surprised to come across headlines like the following:
100 Life Hacks That Make Life Easier
23 Inventive Hacks That Every Parent Should Know
Millennials Are Ditching Delivery for This Dinner Hack
Best Travel Hacks
17 Thanksgiving Hacks For The Best Meal Of Your Life
How did hack go from “illegal computer activity” to “a tip for making things easier to do”?
Looking a little further, I find that hack and hacking to connote only malicious unauthorized access to computer files may reflect general usage, but not that of programmers who are proud to be known as “hackers.”
The OED has ten entries for the word hack: five as a noun, four as a verb, and one as a combining form.
The verb hack in the sense of “to cut with heavy blows” has been in the language since the early 13th century, but the use of hack in the context of computer programming dates from the 1970s.
Note: Hack in the sense of “to cope with” dates from 1955: “I can’t hack all this extra work.”
The etymology of the computer term hack is not certain. According to one theory, it derives from the noun hack used as tech slang for “one who works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programming for its own sake.” (OnlineEtymologyDictionary).
The noun hacker does not carry a connotation of illegal activity in the following OED citations from 1976:
The compulsive programmer, or hacker as he calls himself, is usually a superb technician.
The compulsive programmer spends all the time he can working on one of his big projects. ‘Working’ is not the word he uses; he calls what he does ‘hacking’.
The earliest citation that associates the word hacking with illegal activity is dated 1983:
Hacking, as the practice of gaining illegal or unauthorized access to other people’s computers is called.
Because hack, hacker, and hacking have such varied connotations, writers should consider the intended audience when using them.
In the programming community, hacker and hacking are good things, or at least neutral. Using an adjective to describe the bad kind might be useful when writing for programmers, for example, “malicious hacking” or “illegal hacking.”
As for the noun hack meaning “tip,” “suggestion,” or “work-around,” I expect the usage will become embedded in computer-speak.
The trendy use of hack in the context of cooking, parenting, and other non-computer-related fields, however, will probably eventually revert to tip or suggestion.