On the Use of the Word “Hack”

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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.

19 thoughts on “On the Use of the Word “Hack”

  1. IslamBlows says:

    Whenever a word is “re-purposed”, this is to be expected.

    “Hack” has also been used as a slang for taxi-cab, and for a person who is not very good at his/her job (i.e., a “hack lawyer”).

    So it’s kinda like “gay” which used to mean happy, “sick”, which used to mean possessing some malady, and “dope”, which used to refer to plastic glue, or pretty-much any illegal drug.

    Time (and our language) marches on.

  2. toolusinganimal says:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”

  3. Andy Brice says:

    So, if Make: take the word hack and cleverly repurpose it into something it wasn’t originally intended for, does that mean they’re hacking hack, or are they just hacks?

    1. Clay Haight says:


  4. dirtysquirties says:

    For me, the problem is that it is getting so overused it’s earning a reputation for being click-bait. Every single time someone has a simple tip to make something easier/better/faster/etc they feel a desperate need to use the word “hack”.

    Instead of just saying “People don’t like smelling burrito farts!” authors pee themselves in excitement and say “Burrito hack keeps pedophiles away from your children! I SO CLEVER BCUZ I AM 1337 HAXXOR SHOWER ME WITH PRAISE FOR MY BRILLIANCE!”

  5. Max Rosenblum says:

    You source your definition from The New Hacker’s Dictionary where your use of the word is not even mentioned in any of the 9 subheadings. How does this make your case?

  6. Bunji says:

    At least they don’t PRE-hack their stuff.

  7. Tien Gow says:

    So, according to The New Hacker’s Dictionary, “hack” has so many meanings that it doesn’t mean anything.

  8. tkdcoach says:

    Words gonna be free. It’s sad to see that a good chunk of an entire generation has turned out to be William Safire and so into “control” – guess at that point it’s all about image but it’s a conservative, brick-and-mortar kind of instinct, and in the end, a futile one to attempt to control how words change and evolve. Yes, there are truly “wrong” uses of words, but this isn’t even close to being one.

  9. Pete Prodoehl says:

    I tend to apply the word “hack” to things that seem to present a clever solution to a problem, or a quick and dirty solution to a problem, or using something for which it was not intended to be used.

  10. Ran Dome says:

    In a time where everyone who has wronged someone is Hitler and every infraction genocide, words with actual meanings seem so passe.

  11. colleen7 says:

    Blah blah blah- where are the instructions to make those tennis ball holders? Are those grommets for the eyes? Adorable!!!

  12. Ben Preston says:

    Hack – 1) v. The act of making, modifying or enabling an object to do something (possibly useful) which it wasn’t intended to do originally.
    2) n. The result of the aforementioned.

  13. John Daniels says:

    Another shining example of cognitive dissonance and justification. Just look at those mental gymnastics. “Here’s something that I looked very hard for and that backs up my previously untenable argument. See, I wasn’t wrong after all!” ;) It’s ok. We know how popular writers love buzz words. It spices up something bland and gives you a free article on semantics for those days when your hangover is too much and the article deadline too close.

  14. Ross Hershberger says:

    Well yes, but the term goes back a ways in IT. I was a programmer from 1980 – 2001. Large corporate mainframes. We used the term hack in exclusively a derogatory way. A hack fix to a program or system might be allowable to get around a big problem temporarily. But it was not a correct permanent solution. Hacks were quick workarounds taken in exceptional situations, that would have to be fixed properly later. Code and systems work done to corporate standard would never be called a hack. That would be insulting to the programmer.
    These days I work on hardware and I’m kind of a stickler for appropriate solutions. A lot of what get called hardware hacks are inefficient or ineffective repurposing of existing hardware to do something else. Typically less than what the original device was designed for. For example hacking a dead VCR to make a programmable cat feeder is kinda brilliant. But I’d like to see it followed up with a cleaner build that doesn’t have the unused 90% of the VCR still hanging off of it.

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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. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at garstipsandtools.com.

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