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What emotional association does the word hack have nowadays in the first place: negative or positive?

Is it more for doing something illegally or without permission?

Or for doing something in a quick, clumsy and inelegant, though functional and practically efficient way?

Or doing something in a very clever, non-obvious, admirable fashion?

I agree that context gives the exact meaning used, but I wonder what basic connotation the word has by itself for a native English speaker (not only for a software industry person).

Is it a "slang" word and should its usage be restricted?

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I think one approach to answering this question would be to compile COCA, BNC, and Google stats on how often "dirty hack", "quick hack", "quick-and-dirty hack", "awful hack", "evil hack" etc. are being used compared to "great hack", "clever hack", "brilliant hack" etc. By evaluating how often people feel the need to expressly specify that a hack is good (or bad), we could answer more confidently whether the default connotation of the word for most people is negative (or positive). Just an idea. I know it has its flaws, but still. –  RegDwigнt Sep 19 '10 at 19:26
    
Depends in which context you are using the world as. As Jonik says, it could be the computer hacker hacking something, or hacking with an axe at a tree, or used as an informal word for manage/coping with something. –  JFW Nov 16 '10 at 12:54
    
@JFW: Yes - or slang for a low-quality writer/journalist :) –  psmears Mar 8 '11 at 16:57

7 Answers 7

up vote 13 down vote accepted

There are essentially two distinct ways of how "to hack" (as a verb) or "hacker" (person who hacks) is used in the context of computing.

The more traditional—and positive—meaning emphasises the cleverness of the activity. Some examples about this use:

  • The Hacker subculture article on Wikipedia
  • The Jargon File – a glossary of hacker slang, which "illuminates many aspects of hackish tradition, folklore, and humor"
  • People who work on the Linux kernel (generally speaking very smart and capable programmers), are commonly called "(Linux) kernel hackers".

In this context, another word, cracker (see definition 8), is often used in place of "hacker" to refer to those who "break computer security without authorization".

The other—negative—meaning, which is probably more recent (but not at all new) and more widespread, emphasises the illegality or lack of permission. In other words, "hacker" in this sense is the same as what "cracker" means in the hacker subculture mentioned above. :-) Example:

  • The Hacker (computer security) article on Wikipedia states that "In common usage, a hacker is a person who breaks into computers and computer networks"

And yes, as you suggest, "to hack" can indeed also mean "to put together something that is clumsy and inelegant yet (somewhat) functional". (And as a noun "a hack" means the result of such work, i.e. a quick, somewhat ugly (possibly temporary) solution to a programming problem.)

But note that "hacker", to my understading, is rarely used in this sense of "to hack", i.e. to mean "someone who does quick inelegant solutions".

To sum it up, all three meanings you described indeed exist, and if you use the word you should be careful to establish the context clearly to avoid misunderstandings.

When talking with people outside the IT / software industry, "hacking" will most likely be understood to have the negative connotation (cracking illegally into systems). On the other hand, be aware that if faced with an audience full of (bearded) UNIX users, using the word "hacker" in the negative way could well earn you their disrespect. :-)

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Hmm. My answer would be better & more logical had I read the full question carefully before writing anything, and had I not been dead tired at the moment. :-P Oh well, maybe I'll come back to restructure it later. –  Jonik Sep 19 '10 at 19:10
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A "hack" can be something inelegant and hastily thrown together, or an act of brilliance. In some cases, it isn't easy to figure out which meaning is appropriate. –  David Thornley Sep 20 '10 at 18:23
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In software development, to put in a "hack" usually indicates a clever but hasty fix that will have to be cleaned up later in development. So it fits the first definition here, but it has a negative connotation to it. –  keithjgrant Sep 23 '10 at 16:21
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@David, I missed that in the answer, but agreed, "a hack" can occasionally also refer to something brilliant and admirable, the opposite of inelegant. Quite a flexible word actually. :) –  Jonik Sep 23 '10 at 17:51
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Further reading on Wikipedia: Hacker definition controversy :) –  Jonik Feb 23 '11 at 23:40

One definition of hack — not the oldest, but arguably the most prevalent in places other than the Internet — is, from the OED:

A person whose services may be hired for any kind of work required of him; a common drudge, esp. a literary drudge, who hires himself out to do any and every kind of literary work; hence, a poor writer, a mere scribbler.

In this sense, it is certainly a negative term (cf. political hack).

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In the world of writing, as opposed to the world of software development, this is certainly the most common usage in my experience, and unquestionably negative. –  mickeyf Sep 20 '10 at 3:16

I think all three meanings are essentially the same. To me, hacking associates with clever solutions, exploitation of obscure features (or bugs) of a system to one's benefit. Hacking is an an appropriate application of ingenuity, whether it results in doing something:

  • illegally or without permission
  • in a quick, clumsy and inelegant, though functional and practically efficient way, or
  • in a very clever, non-obvious, admirable fashion

So I would say the term isn't positive or negative, it's all about knowing your audience and your intended meaning, and then deciding whether to use the word or not. (Which basically applies to any piece of verbal communication.)

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One prominent example I can think of is the "Hackers and painters" essay by Paul Graham, where the author does not write a lengthy preface on what kind of hackers he means, but jumps directly to using the word. By which I mean to say that at least for him and his (large) audience, the term hacker is just as neutral as painter. –  RegDwigнt Sep 19 '10 at 21:37

Negative for all audiences except somewhat advanced computer.

Due to the fact that some of its definitions are diametrically opposed one to another and that each are used by different audience, you can not ascribe a fixed connotation to the word "hack" independently of an audience.

Hack will have a different connotation to different audiences.

The general public is strictly unaware of the positive definitions for hack, and hack suggests something not-quite-legal-but-smart or something shoddily done. Not only do they not know what a Linux Kernel Hacker is, they don't even know what a kernel is, and in some case, they might not know what Linux is.

Arts majors and related audience will be more familiar with the "poor writer" definition as well as the general audience's definition.

A computer literate audience will most likely be aware to varying degrees of most definitions. For a white hat Ms programmer, a hack will typically refer to a shoddy solution that works, possibly a clever one, but not necessarily. Something substandard. In the Linux/Unix world, a hack is something brilliant.

All in all, I suspect hack has a negative connotation for most audiences and unless you are making an address at the Black Hat convention, you should probably consider it so.

The above is my opinion only.

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To hack is a more postive term pertaining to doing something a different way which is a positive expression. Looking at the origin, the word hack originated from Computer Science. Hacking is not doing something in an illegal way — the word you are looking is “cracking” which means to hack into computers illegally.

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The answer:

The word
A hack (of a person; writer) means unoriginal (this part, I used ODE).

My impression
If one is a hack; it's means: you lack inspiration, distinction or originality. It may also imply a person that does not think outside the box, the parameters of the media, norm or common insight/sense; that they need to explore beyond the boundary to bring originality and freshness to their work.

The connotative
It depends on the person, being sensitive to feedback, or attached to a personal style.

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In the 1970's, the term "hack" and "hacker" were used by computer programmers in a positive way. According to Wikipedia, the usage of the term "hack" for stunts and clever work may have originated at MIT. When I was a Computer Science graduate student (76-77), our team nickname was the "CSC Hackers".

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