The words “hack” and “hacker” started in the same place in English language history, split in meaning to mean horse and a brutal action verb. Curiously, these two words were reunited 2000 years later in the world of silicon chips, code, and programming.
According to one of the best English etymological dictionaries available anywhere, the word “hacker”, with the sense of evil/good and brilliant computer programmer was born in the halls of the MIT. This fact alone reminds us that culture and words begin in actual places. At that time, to hack code, or hack out code, had a definitely negative connotation. Where did this come from? It came from horses. Yes, horses.
Hack—an ancient, equine word
More than a thousand years ago, in a place called Hackney—once pastureland, now well within London, a certain breed of horse was bred. These horses were known as nags, a word of uncertain origin. This breed of horses came to be called by the name of the patch of land they came from: Hackney. The word Hackney itself meant “Hack’s island” or perhaps “Hook’s island.”
There are two possible reasons for this:
- the island is in a bend or “hook” in the river
- A person or family, named “Hook/Hack” lived there.
- The family may have been called “Hook/Hack” because they came from a hook in a river, because they maybe hooks/axes, because they had a neat family story about a claw (Russian word for claw “коготь” comes from the same root).
We will revisit the word “hook” later.
Hackney nags were general purpose horses, work horses: used for drayage and riding about town. They were not the classy horses used in hunting or war. They were certainly not the horses that the nobility rode with great pomp or under any circumstance.
Eventually, it was these hackney nags that were often, if not principally, used to pull carriages—the sort that were used to shuttle folk from place to place. Even after Hackney was paved over and built up, the horses that pulled taxi carbriolets (taxicabs, i.e. cabs) where known as hacks. Taxicabs were hired on the street—they did not belong to nice families. In other words, they were commonplace, ordinary and for-hire.
Such horse-and-cart drivers came to be known as hackney drivers, then just “hacks” for short. In the 18th century, those who did work for hire, like writers, came to be known as hack-writer or hack-
insert-profession-here. The “transportation professional” use-of-the-word “hack” fell out of fashion as it was replaced by the French word “taxi.” (Soon, that word too might be replaced by the word “uber”).
Hack authors produce copious works, often anonymously for public consumption. It’s not art. Hack work is laborious, tedious, unrefined. This etymology of an earlier tech-world “hack” is nicely supported by the first dictionary of tech terms. In 1959, a member of MIT’s Tech Model Railroad Club, Peter R. Sampson, wrote a dictionary of tech terms used in then nascent computer world saying of “hack” the following:
It’s worth noting that MIT’s TMRC‘s members, the original hackers, eventually seeded MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory which is now CSAIL. A meaningful portion of the lingo of the tech world today was born at the TMRC, e.g. cruft, Internet of Things.
As the world of computers became more mainstream—in the mid 1970s—so did new terms come into common English usage. The word “hacker” appeared and came to describe intrepid, anti-authoritarian, even criminal computer engineers who would illegally bypass communications security measures gaining access to data and software.
Google nGram viewer chart shows the frequency of the labeled terms as found in books scanned by Google (subject to sampling bias). Note the sudden uptick in incidence at about the year 1975.
Does this use stem from the earlier “bad, unoriginal” hack? The answer is a cautious no. It seems that this second meaning comes from the verb “to hack.”
Vikings, violence, and vernacular English
“to hack”, verb has meant roughly the same thing for thousands of years: to cut up roughly, as with an axe or hatchet. Take a look at this snippet from Anglo-Saxon-language Legends of St. Andrew and St. Veronica—apocryphal tales of the apostles/saints which became popular in Anglo-Saxon England in the 10th century A.D.
Translation into Modern English:
In the snippet above, we see the ancestor of the verb “to hack” (highlighted) in a passage where the Roman army, under orders from Titus and Vespasian Christian/Jewish citizens of Judea tortured, killed and also sold into slavery. Astoundingly enough, linguistic research shows that the
to hack verb comes from the same place as the word hook—unsurprising when you consider what many Iron Age axes looked like. To be clear,
to hack verb harkens back to
hook/hack, noun not the other way around.
This is an example of an Iron Age axe (a reproduction). The word in Anglo-Saxon was “æx.”
The people who invaded and settled the place that would be called “Hack’s Island [meaning: Hook’s Island”] would later be invaded by a linguistically related people—The Vikings—who would alter the pre-existing language and culture to the point of influencing the sound change, which drove a split in the pronunciation of the words “hook” and the word “hack.”
When did hackers become good?
Brute force can be used for good and bad. Since the early days of the second “hacker” term there has been an ambivalence towards those who use the epithet. This contribution to the Association for Computing Machinery SIGART bulletin from 1976 makes this evident.
No doubt, today’s crowd can identify with the sentiments of Mr. McDermott of the MIT AI lab. As pressure for regulation begins to build, the dual notion of the Robin Hood begins to color us members of the AI field as well. Are we brilliant, motivated creators of the avant-garde? Or, are we reckless, undisciplined technologists?
By the mid-80’s and into the 90’s,
hacker noun came to mean both things: brilliant programmers who could produce elegant code to solve difficult problems as well as evil, or pathological programmers who threatened public safety by infiltrating secure locations remotely.
There is no doubt that this second, negative meaning was fueled by the end of the cold war and the rise of the internet. The world needed new enemies and the internet was a new, unknown land in need of antagonists.
Two movies from 1995 exemplify this duality
- In the movie The Net, starring Sandra Bullock, the main character has been defrauded by hackers and must steal her life back using the internet, clicking/typing on a computer, and killing people with guns, and fire extinguishers (of course).
- In the film Hackers, miscreant, though-not-evil hackers must fight against an evil (older) hacker who has enlisted the help of the Secret Service to accomplish his evil ends. While the young, talented hackers only intend to have fun, show off and steal small money, the evil hacker has no qualms with hurting innocent people and capsizing an oil tanker—Exxon Valdez style.
In both movies we see that hackers are of two strains: talented, irreverent, but good and older, jaded, evil. Note that in both movies the problem of evil hackers is solved by adding more (good) hackers. This means that the concept of hacking is one of yin and yang—where the balancing force is integral to the thing itself. Life is not always this way, sometimes we need intrinsically different things to fight the evil in the world; e.g. penicillin: fungi fight bacteria.
Verbs (and adjectives) also are ambiguous
Hacking with a hatchet conjures images of violence and brutality. Yet,
to hack verb, the “active form” also displays the ambiguity of meaning shown by
hacker noun, the state form. We have already alluded to a possible reason for this verbal ambiguity: destruction, or in this case hacking can be used for good or bad.
Likewise, a skillful programmer may “hack something together” to get a quick proof-of-concept working and thus save the day. Their haste and brutal code is a boon in these circumstances. At the same time, a bad, careless programmer may produce low quality, “hack-y” or “hacked together” code.
However, in the back of the mind of the early programmers of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the notion of the pathetic hack, who wrote “without constructive end” may have influenced the use and reanalysis of
to hack verb
For these reasons, it is not clear if this use of the term comes from the earlier horse-based “hack” or from the axe-based metaphor, suggesting roughness. In the decidedly analog, stochastic, meat-based brains of homo sapiens programmerensis, the answer is both: these two words started as the same word in northern Europe, diverged only to be reunited in the foggy San Francisco Bay.
Hacking in the Modern Day
Today we have a number of tech words that all come from the same root, but tend to be interpreted rather differently depending on context and speaker’s point-of-view.
- Hack (coder), n./adj. — bad
- Hacker, n. –good or bad
- To hack (code), v. — ambiguously good or bad
- Hacked (code), adj. — ambiguously good or bad
- Hacky (code), adj. — usually bad
What is fascinating to consider, is how the notion of a bend, hook, curve came to mean different things with opposite connotations. Then, over time, two or three currents of meaning were brought together in a new human endeavor of logical thinking, binary logic and clear lines — the world of computing. This new endeavor is equal parts tedious, destructive, violent, daring and creative with some amounts of evil sprinkled in.
Ironically (or predictably), harnessing ambiguity—the natural enemy of computing—is now the goal of the tech world. In the modern world of computing we are trying to build machines that behave in this distinctly non-binary, highly-stochastic way. Neural nets, or more broadly AI, work because they are a mimesis of the squishy, non-binary, probabilistic brains that created all the meanings of “hack” from one original noun.
And yet, the image of the human brain is still one that connotes a meaning of utmost intelligence for us. We’ve even named our speech recognition engine, Deepgram Brain, after it.
We’re an Enterprise Speech AI company that builds trainable speech recognition that translates large scale high-value unstructured audio into accurate, parsable data (transcripts and more).
- Data science teams
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The word hack has another use in modern English. It is found in the compound word: “sidehack.” A sidehack is what some might call a sidecar. The term seems to have gained traction (pun intended) in the world of motorcycle racing. No etymological explanation of this seems to exist, though the likeliest explanation is that it is an extension of the first etymology: the horse from London. Why? Because hack was associated with the notion of the taxicab, for so many centuries.
Some might argue that the idea of a sidehack is born from the notion of hastily, or imprecisely building something (the verbal, violent form). But that verbiage is more modern than we realize. If you consider the data offered by Google nGram viewer, you will find that most results for “hack together” from before about 1994 are actually OCR errors of “back together.” Other results are of the type: last name, together, e.g. “and John Hack, together with Molly Stephens…”
A sidehack on a BMX in Manila, Philippines. There the “Trisikels” [phonetic spelling] are used as transportation, not just entertainment. Photo credit: Scott Stephenson, Co-founder and CEO Deepgram
The word sidehack is indeed associated with motorcycle racing publications from the 1970s (Google search) and returns results featuring BMX bike contraptions from the last 20 years. The relationship between BMX and Motocross was already clear.
Are sidehacks “hacks” because of their association with transportation, or because of their jerry-rigged nature? Given that motocross arose in the 1970s, it’s anyone’s guess. However, given the nGram viewer data and our knowledge of the evolution of “hacking” then we might surmise that the link between tech and Motocross is is tighter than previously believed.