Hack, Hacker and Hacking

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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.

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23 thoughts on “Hack, Hacker and Hacking”

  1. Many in the programmer community take exception to the negative press “hackers” get. They prefer to use the terms “crack” or “cracker” to describe illegal or nefarious computer activity.

  2. There are several other meanings of hack that seem relevant. The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 lists 16 definitions for hack including “to render trite or commonplace” “To cut irregularly” “to notch” These seem relevant to the use in the examples given at the start – incorporating the idea of hacking something large – like one’s life – into small commonplace activities.

  3. Gaining unlawful entrance into a computer system in the early days could be done by cutting into wires and splicing them, much like stealing electricity or cable signals. Cutting = hacking, so the earliest form of the word is likely the one that its current used derived from. I doubt “hack” used as a non-computer related term will revert to “tip” or “suggestion” any time soon. The concept has a hint of something shady in an adventurous, fun way; something “they” don’t want you to know. It implies that it’s a short cut and that it comes at a greatly reduced cost or no cost at all.

  4. I was interested to read the above post, having come across the word ‘hack’ used to mean something like ‘customise an everyday electronic device to do something fun’ in the subtitle of the 2014 Royal Institution Christmas Lectures, broadcast on the BBC. It was a new usage to me, and sounded very strange. This is from the website,

    “Sparks will fly: How to hack your home

    A revolution is happening. Across the world people are taking control of the devices we use every day, customising them, creating new things and using the sparks of their imagination to change the world. Now it’s your turn, and you can start with the things you have around you.

    Electrical and electronics engineer, Prof Danielle George will take three great British inventions – a light bulb, a telephone and a motor – and show you how to adapt them and transform them to do extraordinary things. This is tinkering for the 21st century, using the full array of cutting edge devices that we can lay our hands on: 3D printers, new materials, online collaboration and controlling devices through coding.

    Inspired by the great inventors and standing on the shoulders of thousands of people playing at their kitchen table or in their shed, Danielle will announce the new rules of invention and show you how to use modern tools and technologies and things from your home to have fun and make a difference to the world around you.”

  5. In much the same way that “theory” means one thing to the general public but is used differently by scientists, the term “hacker” as applied to computers has different meanings depending on the group using the term.

    Within the hacking culture, there is no association of illegal activity with the term “hacker.” A hacker is a person who devises a new or different approach to a problem that is seen by their peers as non-obvious, original, or “elegant.” Strictly speaking, “hacker” is a title bestowed by peers after demonstrating one’s sophistication at solving a problem–one cannot claim it for oneself.

    (See “How To Become A Hacker” by Eric S. Raymond, the section titled Status in the Hacker Culture:

    “You’re trying to solve interesting problems, but how interesting they are, and whether your solutions are really good, is something that only your technical peers or superiors are normally equipped to judge.”)

    Within this culture, the term “cracker” (as in “safecracker”) is the term for a person focused on illegal entry into protected systems.

    Jargon File by Eric S. Raymond

  6. Hi Maeve,

    This headline from Jon Morrow is very famous, as well as his Headline Hacks.com : “52 Headline Hacks: A cheat sheet for writing blog posts that go viral.”

    I even used the above cheatsheet to rewrite a headline for one of my guest posts: “15 IMAGE HACKS: An Insider’s Guide to Beautify Your Blog.”

    Malicious or illegal hacking used to known as blackhat hacking. In contrast, white hat hacking used to be what these programmers, UNIX system administrators and other good hacking was about. Not sure, if these words are still in use.

    If someone used to break a program, they used to be called a cracker (which meant illegal user of a software program, one who reverse engineered the program), not a hacker. In today’s times, the word cracker seems non-existent and is replaced by the word hacker.

  7. I like Raspal’s comment about white hat versus malicious hacking (especially since there is a certification for white hat hackers who make a profession circumventing security for large companies in order to help them prevent malicious hacking). Another great use of the word hacks is the “TED : Ideas Worth Spreading” site, where they use the term to mean shortcuts or helpful suggestions in the titles of their expert presentations.

  8. Thanks Maeve,

    Hackers (such as I consider myself) have been battling to get the meaning for which we originally intended it back since the media hijacked it in the 80’s to mean the same as a cracker.

    The common use of “hack”, “hacks” and “hacking” is to me a sign of success and I encourage its usage in this form.

    Our original definition goes back to the 60’s at MIT, here is a quote from the Wikipedia page on the subject: “… the defining characteristic of a hacker is not the activities performed themselves (e.g. programming), but the manner in which it is done: Hacking entails some form of excellence, for example exploring the limits of what is possible, thereby doing something exciting and meaningful.”

    Thus “to hack” is more about how you go about solving a problem than anything else.


  9. A “hack” can also refer to a way to change a computer program’s behavior (especially to add or remove features). A quick search for “registry hack” will reveal lots of ways to change Windows annoyances and add specialized functions that are not accessible through the software’s interface.

    These customizations are considered beneficial to the advanced users’ community.

  10. I guess I’m old. The use of “hack” to imply a tip or suggestion is just kind of annoying to me. If, as Elisabeth says, it means to ‘customise an everyday electronic device to do something fun,’ maybe it’s parallel to the word “pimp,” as in “pimp my ride” (to fancy up a car with all kinds of custom looks and gadgets). Maybe they don’t want to “pimp” their phones (or recipes or whatever). Who can blame them…
    Hack used in the sense of tip or suggestion is the kind of word maybe my 22-year-old daughter would use; coming out of my 50-something-year-old mouth would just sound kind of bizarre, I think.

  11. Maybe I missed it, but I know the word “hack” as applied to any computer programmer, or auto mechanic, for that matter, is someone who is not good at the job. A writer could be a hack, too. That meaning comes from the English word “hackney.”

  12. I don’t think the new usage of “hack” is synonymous with “tip” or “suggestion”. “Workaround” would be the closest of the three. For the older ones in this thread, the best example of a hacker in this context would be MacGyver. 🙂

  13. Me too, Dane. When I hear the word hack the first thing I think of is a “political hack”: someone who is unqualified for their job and just gets along in the easiest way possible (in politics that is usually by simply doing whatever a party or its leaders tell you to.) I then probably think of a hack writer, someone without much writing talent who just turns out drivel of no real value in order to get paid quickly.

    The idea of hacks being shortcuts or tricks of some type is new slang to me, but it seems inevitable with slang that terms are constantly changing meaning as a way of “filtering” who is “in” whatever group and who is not. I hope it doesn’t stick if for no other reason than there is no purpose for it. There are lots of words that already mean what this version of “hack” does. And, since I’m not a programmer, hacker in the computer sense remains a pejorative to me: someone with good computer skills who abuses them for illicit or unethical ends .

  14. Actually, the word hacker goes back to before computers to the early home experimenters with electrical and electronic devices, going back at least to the days of building their own radios.

    Then some went to the dark side, starting with long distance calling fraud (blue boxes). From there it went on to breaking into computer systems.

    Those in the field refer to the bad ones as crackers. But the press didn’t know or didn’t care about the distinction and gave hackers the bad name they’ve carried since the ’70s or so.

    Some people tried for years to correct this, but it’s like banging your head against a brick wall.

  15. The use of hack in technology is unrelated to hackney. I was a hacker long before the cracker/blackhat connotation be came popular, and my sense from the commumity was that it came from the idea of tearing apart the workings of something, figuring it out and adapting what you found. It often has a quick and dirty connotation, because if a properly methodical reverse engineer dissects a system with a scalple, carefully documenting each step in laboratory, the hacker user a meat cleaver, because he’s in his basement workshop, working only for his own edification with whatever tools he has.

  16. ApK is right. Back in the day, one had to “hack away” at writing a program … often cutting subroutines out, moving them, or putting them in the middle of code already written. This word was reinforced by the old keypunch. As one typ’d in the code, the card was puncht, it literally sounded like someone hacking away with an ax.

    In computer-speak, a hacker is a programmer. One who hacks code to break into a system is a cracker. Thus, while all crackers are hackers, not all hackers are crackers!

  17. Now I get it! So, the origin of “hacker” is someone (in the early days of programing) who was able to find a short-cut or workaround, while the bad guys were “crackers,” as in security or code breakers. The media might have hijacked the word “hacker” to represent the bad guys or intruders because it was lesser known jargon (and apparently still more loosely defined at the time) , while the word “crack” or “crackerjack” already had a positive connotation of expert or excellence as in a “crack shot,” meaning an expert marksman, or “crackerjack mechanic” meaning the best. That positive meaning for the word “crack” (late 19th and early 20th centuries) virtually has disappeared from use with nowadays the more common usage of “crackerjack” meaning the confection and “crack” as crystalized narcotics………..or worse.

  18. Ok, so I’m always late to the party. I didn’t read this post until this morning.

    I just went on Bing to check out the picture of the day, and below the picture, one of the topics shown is this one about Talor Swift being hacked. I couldn’t resist. 🙂 (If anyone’s still reading this post. lol)

  19. The term hacker was developed in the mid 1970’s (maybe 1974-ish) to describe a programmer who stayed up all night to get a program to work – either because the program was very complex or because the programmer was not very good. It was often used by good programmers as put-down as in, “You were hacking on that code all night?” The word hack was used as a descriptive term for someone who would wildly remove and add code, without much thought, hoping to get the program to work.

  20. Is it possible that ‘hack’ meaning ‘illegally breaking into a computer system’ derived from a shorthand contraction of ‘hijack?’

  21. Personally, I do not see the connection between hack and tip. It makes no sense to me whatsoever. Who are these “cool” people who keep trying to change our basic English language around to being something else supposedly clever, hip or just new?

    I am extremely weary of “Me and whoever (whomever?)” being acceptable now even among TV speak types. Maybe I am getting old and cranky but my feeling is: “get a life”
    Oh, and let me add: when did “no problem” become an acceptable substitute for thank you? ZZZzzzz

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