The verb to hack, in a computer-related sense, has been around since the 80s, though it seems to be more prevalent recently, thanks mainly to the hacking scandals surrounding last year’s American Presidential Election, as well as the many less important scandals which pop up on the news fairly regularly. It’s not surprising really that nowadays, hacking is synonymous specifically with computer hacking, given how integrated computers are into every aspect of life.
Of course you’re probably aware that that’s not the original meaning of the word.
The word first entered Middle English in the 13th century with the usual Germanic origins, meaning to cut or chop roughly, and of course is still used in this sense today. I’m quite fond of the word actually. For me at least, it works as an ideophone, in that its sound conveys a sense of its meaning. I don’t think it sounds enough like the action of hacking to be considered onomatopoeiac, but it’s a blunt, sharp, graceless word which I think conveys a sense of someone hacking roughly through something.
Computer hacking isn’t really that different, when you think about it. You’re cutting through the defences of a computer system, just as you might hack through the jungle with a machete. And depending on your mad hacking skillz, and the security of your target, you may need to use some brute digital force, rather than stealthily slipping inside, for which hacking might not be the most appropriate term. It’s a fairly logical and economical recycling of an old word for a modern purpose.
Sadly though, I was very disappointed to learn that the noun hack (as in hack writer), has nothing to do with hacking at all. I always assumed it was an insult to the writers’ style, insinuating that they hack away clumsily at the page with their pen, perhaps even directly related to the similar imagery of the old cliché that the pen is mightier than the sword. Or perhaps it referred to how they hacked up the language and crammed all the little bits back together to make an ugly facsimile of quality writing.
Alas, that’s not the case at all. The word is actually an abbreviation of hackney, which referred to an ordinary horse available for hire, often for pulling carriages. If you read a lot of 19th and early 20th century fiction, especially if it’s set in London, you’ll probably notice a lot of references to hackney cabs: horse-drawn carriages serving as taxis. The term hackney is still used sometimes in Ireland to refer to taxis which can’t be hailed in public or use bus lanes. Anyway, it seems that the term came from the area Hackney in Middlesex, where such horses grazed in medieval times. While calling someone a hack writer was still an insult, it referred to the fact that they were a mere writer-for-hire, just like the horses for hackney cabs, and thus not expected to produce any good writing.
It’s a pretty interesting etymology, but I did really like the image of a writer hacking away at a page, so I’m a little disappointed. And conscious of my own writing now! It’s hard to imagine an appropriate symbol for one’s writing when using a keyboard. For now the words flow fairly freely, so perhaps a surgeon’s scalpel making gentle incisions might be an apt visual metaphor. But I hope I never feel like a writer hacking away at his page, because if I ever did, I think I’d call it a day and have to be put out to pasture, with all the other hacks in Hackney!