What is a hack, anyway?

By | November 1, 2015

TheFreeDictionary definition of hack:

hack 1hack hacker hacking hackering


v. hacked, hack·ing, hacks


1. To cut or chop with repeated and irregular blows: hacked down the saplings.
2. To break up the surface of (soil).

3. Informal

  • a. To alter (a computer program): hacked her text editor to read HTML.
  • b. To gain access to (a computer file or network) illegally or without authorization: hacked the firm’s personnel database.
4. Slang To cut or mutilate as if by hacking: hacked millions off the budget.
5. Slang To cope with successfully; manage: couldn’t hack a second job.


1. To chop or cut something by hacking.

2. Informal

  • a. To write or refine computer programs skillfully.
  • b. To use one’s skill in computer programming to gain illegal or unauthorized access to a file or network: hacked into the company’s intranet.
3. To cough roughly or harshly.


1. A rough, irregular cut made by hacking.
2. A tool, such as a hoe, used for hacking.
3. A blow made by hacking.
4. A rough, dry cough.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary Definition of HACK

a : hackney b (1) : taxicab (2) : cabdriver
a (1) : a horse let out for common hire (2) : a horse used in all kinds of work b : a horse worn out in service : jade c : a light easy saddle horse; especially : a three-gaited saddle horse d : a ride on a horse
a : a person who works solely for mercenary reasons : hireling <party hacks> b : a writer who works on order; also : a writer who aims solely for commercial success

What does it mean?
So from our sample of definitions we have nouns that refer to: old work horses, thieves, a dangerous/low income profession, and sellouts. In addition to our verbs which describe the action of: unskillfully chopping away, coughing as though you’re about to die, and coping while barely making it by… Not a very positive image that is being inspired here. It is a diverse word, I’ll give it that. I imagine it being used in recent history similarly to 3a’s sense, followed by being used in the 3b sense, and finally (present day) its meaning is more aligned with:

2. Informal
a. To write or refine computer programs skillfully.

To add some context and flavor to this inquiry, I used the “Ngram” viewer on Google. Here’s what the word usage (in books) looks like over time:

Since it is infinitely easy to look back in time and imagine up a hypothesis that explains observed events, I’ll refrain from doing so. Still, you can see the abrupt emergence of “hacker”, or, “one who hacks”, as the most recent addition to the root word around the early 80’s. The use of the word “hack” is used more loosely by programmers, e.g., “hackathons” are literally coding and development marathons, which often result in new and innovative technologies. The Wikipedia page I just linked does a good job of documenting all the different types of hackathons, many of them being an academic event – some of them even aiming to help improve government transparency. The graph below illustrates the adoption and interest in the idea over the last several years.

I’ll set this down for now and see if I can encourage any discussion about this. Post a comment, contact me, or mention it on a forum. Honestly I was surprised when I first read about hackathons at my university. I thought “The faculty would never support something with that name!”


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