If you're looking for proof of the English language's remarkable flexibility, enter the word hack into the New York Times's search field. The newest results will include a mention of "hack politicians"; a reference to "the suspected hack of Sony Pictures by North Korea" in 2014; a description of New York Mets slugger Noah Syndergaard "taking a hack at a 97-m.p.h. fastball"; and an op-ed asserting that establishment-friendly Republican presidential candidates quit the 2016 campaign because they "couldn't hack it."

That's just a handful of examples, representing less than a single week of publication. And it's only the beginning of the hack story.

A hack may be a taxicab or the person who drives one. It can be a verb, usually followed by "off," that means "to annoy." It may refer to an attempt ("to take a hack at" something), a prank, a cough, a journalist, or a crude chop. It has specific meanings in falconry, cattle husbandry, beekeeping, bricklaying – and, of course, computer programming. (More about that last one in a bit.) In current parlance, especially when modified by "life," hack is shorthand for a (sometimes dubious) shortcut, trick, or remedy.

Bagel-tote life hack via Know Your Meme

There are registered trademarks for Museum Hack (guided museum tours), Hackfit ("the most active startup event on the planet"), Parent Hacks ("sharing genius shortcuts for life with kids"), Brand Hack (an ad agency), StrategyHack (business consulting), MindHack (online journals), and "Hack My Life" (a series on the truTV cable channel) – and for many hack brands involving computer programming, computer camps, and computer education.

All of these hacks branch out from two Middle English sources. In the 13th century, acken or hacke meant "to cut with heavy blows in an irregular fashion." A century later, a hak or hake was a tool for chopping; the word later came to be applied to the gash made by such a tool. Early on, a hacker was a person who chopped wood, but in late-1940s America it meant a tennis or golf player of mediocre ability and poor form – someone who "hacks" at the ball instead of stroking it elegantly, as the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang puts it.

Meanwhile, English had acquired hackney from Old French haquenée around 1300. In both languages, the word meant an ordinary horse – as opposed to a war horse or a hunting steed – with an ambling gait. Early on, such horses were hired out, and so hackney came to mean "a horse or carriage kept for hire." The "ordinary" sense gave rise to an extended meaning of "common drudge" and to a shortened form, hack. (It also produced an adjective, hackneyed, that means "trite" or "commonplace.") By the 19th century a hack was anyone whose less-than-stellar services could be hired – such as, for example, a political hack, party hack, or hack writer. By the 1910s hack was also U.S. slang for a hearse or, alternatively, a taxicab or its driver.

Hack has enjoyed a slangy American career since the late 19th century as a verb, usually in combination with around or off, meaning "to socialize idly" or "to waste time." To hack someone off – also dating from the late 19th century – means to annoy or provoke that person; it's an Americanism that sounds British, which may be why the English actor Hugh Grant uses @HackedOffHugh as his Twitter handle.

Many of these diverse meanings converge in the various computer senses of hack. The earliest documented usage of this hack may be the 1959 dictionary of the Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC), a student organization at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that celebrates its 70th anniversary this year. The dictionary's definitions for hack are "1) something done without constructive end; 2) a project undertaken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce, or attempt to product, a hack." The present-day TMRC website further clarifies: "The essence of a 'hack' is that it is done quickly, and is usually inelegant. It accomplishes the desired goal without changing the design of the system it is embedded in." (My thanks to Hugo Van Kemenade for the TMRC dictionary link.)

Sixteen years later, at Stanford University, a PhD student named Raphael Finkel compiled the Jargon File, a glossary and usage guide to programmer slang. Published as The Hacker's Dictionary in 1983 and updated in 1991 as The New Hacker's Dictionary, the file defines hacking as "an appropriate application of ingenuity" in a programming job. But there's a secondary meaning: "a creative practical joke," usually undertaken by the same people – at Stanford, Caltech, MIT, or Harvard – who engage in the first kind of hacking.

Entries in The New Hacker's Dictionary include hack attack (an extended programming session), hack mode ("What one is in when hacking, of course"), hack value ("the reason or motivation for expending effort toward a seemingly useless goal"), and hack-and-slay (to play an online game or undertake an all-night hacking session). The entry for hacker notes without attribution that the word originally meant "someone who makes furniture with an axe," and goes on to give eight contemporary meanings, the last of which is "a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around." That stigmatized sense – hacker as bad guy – caught on in the nontechnical media and led to the defensive coining, around 1985, of cracker to mean someone who breaks security on a system, probably in imitation of safecracker. (Mike Pope wrote about hack and other “language of cyber-malfeasance” in 2011.)

A quarter-century on, cracker is rarely seen, and hacker covers the moral spectrum from innocent to insidious. In their new book Silicon Valley Speak: Deciphering the Jargon of Silicon Valley, Rochelle Kopp and Steven Gans distinguish between the narrow media use of hacker "to refer to those who apply their skills to infiltrate and wreak havoc on computer systems" and the "most common Silicon Valley usage": "anyone who loves to push the envelope of what is possible within a system. ... The verb hack means finding a clever solution to a problem, often by modifying something in an original way to suit a convenient but unintended purpose."

Today, hackers may congregate in hackerspaces to take part in hackathons at which a large number of people engage in collaborative programming. (Oxford Dictionaries antedates hackathon to the early 1990s.) Instead of hiring a marketing director, a scrappy startup may employ a growth hacker – a term coined in 2010 by Qualaroo founder Sean Ellis and described by Uber executive Andrew Chen as "a hybrid of marketer and coder, one who looks at the traditional question of 'How do I get customers for my product?' and answers with A/B tests, landing pages, viral factor, email deliverability, and Open Graph."

Some hackers do deplorable things: In late 2015, hundreds of franchisees of the fast-food chain Wendy's were targeted in a "hack attack"; and in January BoingBoing reported that "smart" baby monitors had been hacked by "voyeurs and griefers who are using [their] capabilities to spy on" and taunt young children. Other hackers apply their knowledge toward benevolent ends: Hack the Hood, an Oakland, California, nonprofit, teaches computer skills to low-income youth, who then build websites for small local businesses.

Then there are hacktivists – a blend of hacker and activists – who break into computer systems for what they believe to be virtuous political or social reasons. A 2013 documentary, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivists, traced the evolution of the group called Anonymous "from merry pranksters to a full-blown, global movement."

If all of this jargon and stealth raises your hackles – a word that refers to the neck feathers of certain birds, and is unrelated to hack and hacker – take heart! You can escape the noise by playing with a Hacky Sack, the trademark of a brand of footbag. Hacky Sack was invented – or reinvented from its Native American origins – in Oregon in 1972 by Mike Marshall and John Stallburger, both in their 20s. Whence the name? "Hacky sack [sic] was a catchy name that Mike coined," Stallenburger told the Eugene (Oregon) Register-Guard in 1980. "There's really no great story behind it. When he wanted to play, he'd say something like, 'Let's go hack the sack.'" Not coincidentally, a hack is a goal in a game of Hacky Sack.


Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Candlepower.

Nancy Friedman is the chief wordworker at verbal-branding consultancy Wordworking, and the author of a fine blog on naming, branding and more called Fritinancy. Nancy has named a venture-capital firm, a laser hair-removal device, a mobile-money service, and many other companies and products. A former journalist, she still writes or ghostwrites articles, speeches, white papers, and books. Click here to read more articles by Nancy Friedman.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Friday May 20th 2016, 1:25 AM
Comment by: Mike P. (Seattle, WA)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking."
-- Richard Stallman
Friday May 20th 2016, 6:26 AM
Comment by: Phil H. (Thessaloniki Greece)
Great column, Nancy! The headline writers at Huffpost are stuck on the word, as in today's "The Hard-Boiled Egg Hack To End All Egg Hacks."

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.