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“hack” in “hackathon”

The word “hack” has two distinct definitions. One means “to cut or sever with repeated irregular or unskillful blows.” This must be the origin of the word “hack” as used in the world of computers, i.e., to “hack into” a computer. You keep trying different tactics and passwords until you succeed.

But the word “hack” also means to cope with something, to make do with what you have and forget about the details, even if it’s not the proper way to do it, as in a “hack job”. This is a very different definition from the first but the two are often used interchangeably in a confusing way.

“Hackathon” for instance does not mean what many people assume it does. It’s not an event where a bunch of computer hackers try to hack into a system. The term “codefest” better describes what “hackathon” really is, where a bunch of computer programmers get together and collaborate on software applications. They are using the second definition, not the first.

I’m wondering which definition came first. And, where did the second definition come from? Did it exist before the days of computers?

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My understanding is that hack means to chop roughly, and later came to mean any job done shoddily. A hack job may be done badly, but works. A hack in programming is similar - an inelegant or inefficient solution, but one that works. There are still find many programmers who refer to themselves as hackers because it still refers to the spirit of tinkering, exploration and do-it-yourself. This is the type of hacking a hackathon refers to.

Hackers later became associated with the subset of tinkerers who explore via breaking into systems. There are still folks fighting the good fight (for an example, pick up a copy of 2600 Magazine, subtitle: The Hacker Quarterly) to keep "hacker" to refer to a tinkerer and "cracker" to refer to people who gain unauthorized access to systems.

KJ April 30, 2012, 12:57pm

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Interesting. My guess was that "unauthorized access" came before "tinkering". If you are right, I would imagine that "hack" to mean "tinker" or "cope" came before computers.

Dyske April 30, 2012, 1:21pm

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From this website: :

The Tech (MIT student newspaper) Nov. 1, 1963 "Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. … The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. … Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.” "

BJONES April 30, 2012, 2:41pm

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Thank you for that link. That is interesting. In the comment section, another person left a link to another page:

I'm not quite satisfied with those explanations. When we create a word with "er" to mean a person who does something, the verb usually comes first. For instance, "bake", I'm sure came before "baker", because the act of baking had to be invented before the word "baker" can be born. The same is true for "hitter", "driver", "swimmer", runner", "programmer", "painter", and so on... The verb has to come first.

So, the verb "hack" must have been used in the field of computers or technology before the word "hacker" was coined. And, "er" was added later to mean someone who hacks. If we want to trace the history of the word "hacker", we should trace the origin of the verb "hack" as it was first used in the field of computing or technology.

Dyske April 30, 2012, 3:16pm

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The OED shows a usage of "hack" from 1745 as :-
To make a hack of, to put to indiscriminate or promiscuous use; to make common, vulgar, or stale, by such treatment;
Not sure when it was first used to means illegal access to a computer.
It was certainly used in IT from the late sixties but mainly as a derogatory term for programmers who were not good at the job.
Some may find this document on "Real Programmers" amusing.
It is too big to post here so if you would like to read it you can get it here:-

Hairy Scot May 4, 2012, 1:01pm

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Stephen Levy’s *Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution*, explains that the word hack in the context of computers derive from the Tech Model Railroad Club, where a hack was a clever technical modification of a rail road set. A hacker is thus someone who invents clever technical solutions.

IvarTJ May 6, 2012, 7:28am

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I have seen some link here.but I have not found anything interesting
I'm not quite satisfied with those explanations. When we create a word with "er" to mean a person who does something, the verb usually comes first. For instance, "bake", I'm sure came before "baker", because the act of baking had to be invented before the word "baker" can be born. The same is true for "hitter", "driver", "swimmer", runner", "programmer", "painter", and so on... The verb has to come first.check this


arabind9999 May 12, 2012, 6:39am

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a chopper, cutter" perhaps also "one who makes hacking tools" early 13c. (as a surname), agent noun from hack (v.1). Meaning "one who gains unauthorized access to computer records" is attested by 1983, agent noun from hack (v.2). Said to be from slightly earlier tech slang sense of "one who works like a hack at writing and experimenting with software, one who enjoys computer programming for its own sake," 1976, reputedly a usage that evolved at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (however an MIT student from the late 1960s recalls hack (n.) being used then and there in the general sense of "creative prank" which clouds its sense connection with the "writing for hire" word, and there may be a source or an influence here in hack (v.1)).

hack (v.2)
"illegally enter a computer system" by 1984; apparently a back formation from hacker. Related: Hacked; hacking. Earlier verb senses were "to make commonplace" (1745), "make common by everyday use" (1590s), "use (a horse) for ordinary riding" (1560s), all from hack (n.2).

AnWulf May 14, 2012, 8:06am

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Always go back to the roots. Follow Anglo-Saxon all the way back to German and find the verb "hacken". Look that one up in the right kind of dictionary and find out what it means.

D. A. Wood May 29, 2012, 7:29am

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I agree that the verb "hack" is the key, but I think some of the postulations are overthinking it. The basic meaning is to chop roughly; a sub-meaning, used with "into," is to gain access by chopping what's in your way ("hack" one's way into a jungle, for example). It seems reasonable that the idea of gaining access into a computer by some means other than the "front door" may have been referred to as "hacking" in - by a means requiring one to remove obstacles. Thus, the back-formation "hack," thus "hacker."

SinTax'ed Enough June 26, 2013, 4:52am

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