How the Word 'Hack' Became So Hacked

By: Jesslyn Shields  | 
How did the word "hack," which used to suggest shadowy criminal activity, come to be the catchall word for anything that makes life easier or better? Zhanna Hapanovich/Shutterstock

There was a time when the word "hack" meant to roughly and indiscriminately chop at something, as with an axe. It has been used to describe someone who is not particularly good at their job. And at one time, it was a type of horse-drawn taxicab.

However, at some point in the 21st century the meaning of "hack" began to blossom into something more: a workaround, an innovative shortcut that increases productivity.


When a Word Jumps the Tracks

But how does a word jump the tracks and change meanings like that? In the case of "hack," it all goes back to the dawn of computer programming. In 1955, the minutes of a meeting of the M.I.T. Tech Model Railroad Club contain a record of one member requesting that anyone "hacking on" the electrical system of the group's model train set take pains not to blow a fuse. In this case, "hack" meant to work on.

By 1975, the meaning had expanded from a verb to a noun. A computer enthusiast didn't just hack, but was a hacker. This implied a lot of things, but above all, a hacker was somebody who relished and excelled at hands-on computer programming, who wasn't all caught up in the theory of computer science, which was obviously just for nerds.


By the 1980s, hackers were people who understood computer systems well enough that they could create bits of code that might not be very sturdy, but could get the job done. Of course, "the job" might be breaching the security of a company's computer system — hacking could be downright criminal, or just slightly mischievous. Some wore white hats, some wore black hats, but the point was, hacking was a fun intellectual puzzle.

With hacking, anybody could do it, and rank wasn't decided by age or wealth, but by raw talent and ability. In 1995, the movie "Hackers" came out, about a group of scrappy, attractive teenagers with code names like "Crash Override" and "Acid Burn" who save the world with their hacking skills.

So, within the space of 40 years, hackers transformed from M.I.T Tech Model Railroad Club members to a young, vinyl-clad Angelina Jolie. And we're not done yet.


'Hack' Becomes Synonymous With 'Attack'

In the 2000s, cyberattacks — large scale hacks of one corporation or even nation-state'scomputer security, often by another corporation or country — became more possible, and therefore more common. The word "hack" became synonymous with "attack."

But hacking was still being celebrated by some. In 2012, Mark Zuckerberg's letter to Facebook investors was titled "The Hacker Way," and claimed that hacking makes a system stronger, not weaker.


What Did We Do Before We Had 'Lifehacks'?

Meanwhile, the word hack was picked up by journalists, influencers, bloggers and in social media channels to refer to a novel, resourceful way of doing something. "Lifehacks" could include tips for using aluminum foil, cleaning with a Magic Eraser or repurposing dishwasher tablets — "Lifehacker" is a whole magazine devoted to optimizing your tasks, and their motto is "Do everything better." Want to lose weight or improve your memory or feel happier? That's called biohacking. There are people with ideas for how to hack every aspect of your entire life. In Silicon Valley, computer programmers who have turned to marketing are called "growth hackers." The list goes on and on.

It's possible the word "hack" might eventually mean nothing at all, but for now, all we can do is watch it spin and evolve.