Taking a hack at hack

Last year, continuing news of the Sony hack and the salacious Ashley Madison hack served as the background to a steady stream of online suggestions: “Life Hacks for Happiness,” “Success Hacks from Forbes,” “Hacks to Make You More Productive” and “Brain Hacks to Improve your Health.”

The attempt to squeeze “hack” into just about every headline was clear from CNN’s “Big Business Must Hack the Refugee Crisis” to The Atlantic’s “Pop Culture is Finally Getting Hacking Right.”

Although I often agree with word experts when it comes to the word of the year, this time around I suspect they missed the mark by choosing ‘they’ and the suffix ‘-ism.’ Clearly, Merriam-Webster and Oxford Dictionaries failed to recognize the obvious winner—”hack.” Not only has the word increased in frequency, but it has also taken on several new meanings in recent years. 

From the German hacken, ‘hack’ first appeared in English around 1200, meaning ‘to cut with heavy blows in an irregular fashion.’ The concept of cutting or breaking into can be perceived in all iterations of ‘hack’ throughout the centuries.

In the 1300s, the word transitioned from a verb into a noun as the name of a variety of agricultural tools used for chopping. Later in the 1600s, it could mean ‘a gash or wound caused by clumsy blows,’ ‘cuts or chaps in the skin,’ ‘a break in speech’ or ‘a short dry hard cough.’

In the 1800s, an intentional kick in the shin while playing rugby or football was also a ‘hack.’ This led to the expression ‘hack the sack’ in 1972, when two guys from Oregon kicked, or hacked, a beanbag for fun, later trademarking the game as ‘hacky sack.’ In the 1980s, when computer security became a broad topic of concern, the word ‘hack’ took off. At this point, most people began associating ‘hack’ with unauthorized access to information in computer files.

According to The New Yorker, ‘hack’ for machines came about in 1955 at MIT when people loosely used it to mean ‘working on’ a technical problem. There have always been two distinct connotations for ‘hack’ in the computer world: one is nefarious (breaking in to steal information), while the other is positive (breaking in to help others or for a social cause).

The negative connotation of hacker dominated the public perception until quite recently, when neutral or even positive uses have come into fashion. Consider the new ‘hactivist’ and ‘hactivism,’ which refer to a hacker whose intention is to propagate a social or political goal. Anonymous hackers trying to disrupt ISIS websites is a very recent example.

Some other meanings of ‘hack’ include ‘a shortcut in a video game,’ ‘a solution,’ ‘altering an item to be used in an unintended fashion,’ ‘a tip,’ ‘a break in a musical note,’ ‘a stammer or hesitation’ and ‘a foul in basketball.’ Many of hack’s idiomatic meanings may come from the effort one must put into cutting something with heavy blows. In the mid-1900s, the expression to hack someone off meant ‘anger or annoy,’ and to hack after meant ‘continue working away at.’ Even now, to hack something (as in, I can’t hack it anymore) means ‘persist in a difficult situation.’

There are some uses of ‘hack’ that do not come from the Germanic source hacken—but from a horse. The Hackney horse, named for the Hackney area of London, was one that could be hired for general services. This concept later extended to any person who took on menial tasks for a fee. At one time, prostitutes and mercenaries were referred to as ‘hacks.’

From the late-1800s until the mid-1900s, the expressions ‘newspaper hack’ and ‘hack’ for a driver or cab were used frequently. Now, this ‘hack’ maintains the derogatory image of a professional who is not genuinely qualified to do his or her job. Consider hack job, hack attorney, hack preacher and hack politician.

Something tells me that hack politician is a term that we will be revisiting in the coming year…so as compensation, let’s hope to see fewer credit card hacks and more happiness hacks as we take on 2016.


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