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Jewish World Review Feb. 1, 2002 / 19 Shevat, 5762

Geoffrey Nunberg

Geoffrey Nunberg
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Hacking up our language -- THERE'S a Gresham's Law of meanings, too -- the bad ones drive out the good ones. Senile used to mean just "old," but that meaning disappeared when the word acquired a sense of mental defectiveness. A junket was originally just a party, before it got the sense of a trip taken at public expense.

Or take the word hack, as in "hack writer." That was originally a shortening of hackney, which referred to a horse that was easy to ride -- it came from the Hackney area of London, where horses were raised in the Middle Ages. Then it came to refer to a horse kept for hire (that's where we get the use of hack to mean cab driver), then to anyone who hires himself out to do mean or servile jobs -- in Shakespeare's time, in fact, the words hack and hackney were synonyms for "prostitute." Then it was applied to any incompetent work, as in a hack job. And finallyhackneyed came to mean a tired phrase that's in promiscuous use.

These uses of hack had only an indirect influence on the way computer programmers started using hack and hacker back in the 1960s. Probably these new senses owed as much to the use of hack to mean "chop," which was what had given rise to phrases like tennis hacker and golf hacker, and it may owe something to "hacking around," too.

(Actually it's often hard to say just which sense of a word a new slang term is based on -- new senses can tend to resonate up and down the dictionary entry.)

But like the older senses of hack, the programmer's hack started out as a positive term -- part of the cult language that grew up among programmers at places like MIT and Carnegie Mellon. When you hear a progammer say "she can really hack," it's in the same appreciative tone that a jazz musician uses when he says, "he can really blow."

In recent years, though, hacker has gone down the same steep road that hack and hackney did a couple of hundred years ago. The process started early on. Already in the 1960's, engineering students were using hack to refer to an ingenious prank, which might involve a computer-system break-in. Sometimes these were just irrepressible student hi-jinks, sometimes they were more malicious acts by hacker wannabes. And when break-ins by those self-styled hackers began to make headlines in the 1980's, the press naturally took the term to describe the perpetrators, to the point where that's the only sense of the word that most people know.

A lot of programmers still get indignant about this use of the word. They want people to reserve hacker as a term of praise, and suggest the word crackers as a name for people who do malicious break-ins. I appreciate their point, but there's no possibility the process will be reversed -- no more than hackney is going to go back to meaning a horse that's easy to ride.

For one thing, the figure of the hacker has clearly caught the public's fancy as the perfect villain for the information age. And the media contributes to the hacker's sinister allure. You think of John Markoff's bestseller Takedown, a nonfiction thriller about the escapades and eventual capture of the arch-hacker Kevin Mitnick. Or there was the 1995 film Hackers, with Angelina Jolie as one of the ringleaders of a bunch of adolescent misfits who break into corporate servers and uncover fiendish criminal schemes.

Of course most programmers don't bear much resemblance to the hacker stereotype of the precocious sociopath. (They don't bear a lot of resemblance to Angelina Jolie, either.) But I can understand why people would be tempted to take the hacker as the representative of the entire breed.

If you're unable to log in to your stockbroker while your portfolio tanks, you're not usually in a mood to care whether the problem is due to the deliberate mischief of some hacker or the purely inadvertant mischief that ordinary programmers can do.

It's a little scary to realize that the smooth operation of our economy is at the mercy of a tribe of twenty-somethings in ponytails and Converse sneakers who regard the rest of us with undisguised condescension. Every time I have to call in to the help desk of some software company or online service, I have the sense of being cast in a recurring episode from the old Sky King TV series -- the one where the pilot of a small plane has passed out and someone in the control tower is trying to talk his eight-year-old passenger in for a landing. "Now Billy, I want you to pull back SLOWLY on that stick in front of you. That's GOOD, Billy!"

You can see why the public hasn't been interested in according the word hacker the respect that programmers think we owe it. In fact I'm starting to hear programmers themselves using the word the way everybody else does. Partly this is just their realization that it's a losing battle trying to keep the positive sense of hacker alive.

But it also reflects a kind of demystification of their trade, as programming becomes a more commodified skill and all that stuff about the "hacker code" comes to sound a little precious. In the end, that's always what happens to the cults that emerge among the early practitioners of new technologies, from the steamboat to the telegraph to the airplane.

But programmers can at least have the consolation of knowing that the same process always tempers the villainous specters that also grow up around those technologies -- the Frankensteins, the Dr. Strangeloves, or the demonical hackers of the recent headlines. Not that hacking is about to disappear any time soon, but after a while it'll be just another one of the hackneyed criminalities of modern life.

JWR contributor Geoffrey Nunberg is a Consulting Professor of Linguistics at Stanford University. The author of, most recently, "The Way We Talk Now," he also chairs the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary. Comment by clicking here.


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01/11/02: The Last Post
01/04/02: Literal frustration
12/28/01: I Have Seen the Future, and It Blogs
12/21/01: An interjection for the age
12/14/01: Its own reward
12/07/01: Community sting
11/30/01: 100 Percent Solutions

© 2002, Geoffrey Nunberg