Maker News
On the Use of the Word “Hack”

Awesome-Everyday-Life-Hacks-7Yes, believe it or not, this is a perfect example of a “hack.”

Recently, after posting several of my shop hacks posts, on Make:‘s social media outlets (e.g. Twitter, G+, Facebook) and here in the comments, readers have complained: “You’re using it wrong!,” “That word doesn’t mean what you think it means,” “You might want to look that word up,” “Enough with ‘hacks’!” Etc.

In my “5 Ridiculously Simple Kitchen Projects” this week, I resisted the temptation to use the word hacks instead of projects because of the frequent carping over the term. But when Make:‘s social media person used it in the description of my piece on social media, it got the usual negative reaction. So, I thought it might be time to talk about the word and its proper usage.

The New Hacker’s Dictionary (which grew out of the venerable online Jargon File) defines the “hack” as follows:

hack [very common] 1. n. Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well. 2. n. An incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed. 3. vt. To bear emotionally or physically. “I can’t hack this heat!” 4. vt. To work on something (typically a program). In an immediate sense: “What are you doing?” “I’m hacking TECO.” In a general (time-extended) sense: “What do you do around here?” “I hack TECO.” More generally, “I hack foo” is roughly equivalent to “foo is my major interest (or project)”. “I hack solid-state physics.” See Hacking X for Y. 5. vt. To pull a prank on. See sense 2 and hacker (sense 5). 6. vi. To interact with a computer in a playful and exploratory rather than goal-directed way. “Whatcha up to?” “Oh, just hacking.” 7. n. Short for hacker. 8. See nethack. 9. [MIT] v. To explore the basements, roof ledges, and steam tunnels of a large, institutional building, to the dismay of Physical Plant workers and (since this is usually performed at educational institutions) the Campus Police. This activity has been found to be eerily similar to playing adventure games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Zork. See also vadding. Constructions on this term abound. They include happy hacking (a farewell), how’s hacking? (a friendly greeting among hackers) and hack, hack (a fairly content-free but friendly comment, often used as a temporary farewell). For more on this totipotent term see “The Meaning of Hack.” See also neat hack, real hack.

The essay mentioned at the end of this definition, The Meaning of Hack, is worth reading. There are some great early stories in it about the word as it applies to senses 4 and 6 (computer program hacking) and 5 (pranking). But the most salient quote from the essay is this:

“Hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity.’ Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it.”

It is in this sense that my and other Make: contributors’ use of the term for clever shop techniques, ingeniously simple projects, and epic “kluges” (i.e. Rube Goldberg-level hacks and fixes) is entirely appropriate. While it is certainly true that the word is very often overused (and misused); that it has become a word that sounds hip, edgy, and cool and can add a little spice to an otherwise bland piece, if the project meets the above definition, it is, in fact, a hack.

PS: And I do have some authority to weigh in on this subject. I was the co-founder of Wired’s “Jargon Watch” column and its editor for twelve years. I was also the special domain consultant to the Oxford American Dictionary (computer and internet terms), was a member of the American Dialect Society, and my work on computer/internet jargon and slang was frequently covered in the ADS journal, American Speech.


Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. And he has a new best-of writing collection and “lazy man’s memoir,” called Borg Like Me.

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