I was drawn to the usage of the word, “hack” in the following message in today. com: 5 unexpected ways to use coffee filters (that have nothing to do with coffee)

Coffee filters are good for more than your morning brew. Try these five hacks and you'll never look at those pieces of paper the same way. That little piece of paper powers our days through the simple task of straining coffee grounds, but that's not the only function it's good for. Here are five new ways to make them even more essential.

As I saw the word, “hack” being used in this way for the first time, I consulted dictionaries on line, and found that:

Oxford Dictionary defines “hack” as a noun to mean:

1.rough cut, blow, or stroke. 2. an act of computer hacking.

Cambridge Dictionary only shows the definition of “hack” as a verb: to cut into pieces in a rough and violent way, often without aiming exactly.

Though I presumme "hack" in the above quote means an idea or method, what does it exactly mean?

Is it common to use "hack" in such a way?

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    I guess you've never heard of LifeHacks.SE?
    – Laurel
    Oct 15, 2016 at 1:19
  • 8
    By the way there is actually an SE site "lifehacks" for goodness sake. (It's exactly as stupid and annoying as the book in question.)
    – Fattie
    Oct 15, 2016 at 11:24
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    @joeblow In my experience in computer engineering the word hack started out not meaning either a malicious act, or doing something shoddily as a workaround. It more meant deeply understanding something and thus being able to do unusual or creative things with it that it was perhaps not originally designed or intended to do. In addition the term predates that book by a long tine.
    – Vality
    Oct 15, 2016 at 16:10
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    Hackney originally meant a riding horse for hire, which then came to be applied to carriages drawn by such horses, and then came to mean something so commonplace or ordinary as to be trite, which then in turn became applied to low quality work quickly performed, and in particular writers who write lots of mediocre content quickly.
    – barbecue
    Oct 15, 2016 at 16:53
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    @curiousdanni. For the record, I didn't say you're damb anywhere in this post. Oct 17, 2016 at 8:51

12 Answers 12


From Wiktionary's entry on hack

(colloquial) A trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method to increase productivity, efficiency or ease.

Putting your phone in a sandwich bag when you go to the beach is such a great hack.

It's related to the use of "hack" to mean getting unauthorised access to a computer system, because both involve skill.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – tchrist
    Oct 16, 2016 at 15:01
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    It is more than common to use hack in this sense; it is pedestrian.
    – sas08
    Oct 17, 2016 at 6:12
  • @sas08: That depends on where you are. Oct 17, 2016 at 12:24

This particular use of the word 'hack' is fairly recent and is a consequence of the insatiable demand for content to fill blogs and social media posts to attract people to monetised sites stuffed with advertising AKA 'click bait'.

The idea is that if you can create a headline post on a well trafficked platform (like Facebook) which sounds interesting you can encourage people to click on a link to a page with lots of pay per click ads and thus make money.

The original use of the word stems from computers and technology where it referred to an oblique or creative way to modify or exploit hardware or software in a away not intended by the original designer to either customise it for particular purpose or gain some other benefit such as access to privileged information.

at some point (certainly by the mid 1990s 'hacking' was widely understood in popular culture as 'gaining unauthorised access to computer systems'.

Later, especially via the internet community on forums and you-tube etc 'hack' started to take on a more practical aspect often using creative but low tech ways of modifying consumer goods or scratch building useful items from readily available parts. Obviously this had been going on for a long time before this, for example model makers adapting and modifying parts form various model kits to make unique things and words like 'kitbashing' have been used to describe this.

However in this context it is more about an easy way to generate what might be loosely called 'journalistic content' although this process has some history as filler for magazines etc where it would historically be called 'hint', 'tips' etc. The implication being that you are being given access to specialist insider knowledge to make your life easier.

The reality is that these 'hacks' are generally pretty inane and trivial on the same sort of level as '12 historical facts which will blow your mind' and 'this one secret will help you burn belly fat'.

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    I believe the original use in the "hacker community" was never really restricted to computers and technology. It always meant to use something in a way it wasn't intended to. Of course, something requires creativity to be a proper hack. Things like "Lifehack: Turn the knob on a door to open it" found on clickbait sites doesn't qualify. I don't have a really authoritative source, but rms says so On Hacking and that guy has been part of the hacker community since the 70s.
    – Josef
    Oct 17, 2016 at 8:28
  • Actually, the misunderstanding of "hack" to mean "gain unauthorized access" goes back to the 70s, at least.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 17, 2016 at 23:17
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    In the late '70s being a hacker was a programmer who did clever tricks which were hard to understand by other programmers. This was both a compliment (on the clever part) and derisive (on the hard-to-modify part). The work hacker to be used for a person who enters without authorization was much later (in the '70s there were very, very few computers connected to any network). Oct 18, 2016 at 23:38
  • @PabloStraub - I was first introduced to the term "hacker" in 1971. By 1976 or so the term had already taken on the negative meaning. (And there were plenty of remotely-accessible computers by that date. The first publicly documented cases of unauthorized remote access occurred around 1973, IIRC.)
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 19, 2016 at 2:53

The obvious source for a definition is The New Hacker's Dictionary:


  1. /n./ Originally, a quick job that produces what is needed, but not well.
  2. /n./ An incredibly good, and perhaps very time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed.
  3. /vt./ To bear emotionally or physically. "I can't hack this heat!"
  4. /vt./ To work on something (typically a program). In an immediate sense: "What are you doing?" "I'm hacking TECO." In a general (time-extended) sense: "What do you do around here?" "I hack TECO." More generally, "I hack 'foo"' is roughly equivalent to "'foo' is my major interest (or project)". "I hack solid-state physics." See Hacking X for Y.
  5. /vt./ To pull a prank on. See sense 2 and hacker (sense 5).
  6. /vi./ To interact with a computer in a playful and exploratory rather than goal-directed way. "Whatcha up to?" "Oh, just hacking."
  7. /n./ Short for hacker.
  8. See nethack.
  9. [MIT] /v./ To explore the basements, roof ledges, and steam tunnels of a large, institutional building, to the dismay of Physical Plant workers and (since this is usually performed at educational institutions) the Campus Police. This activity has been found to be eerily similar to playing adventure games such as Dungeons and Dragons and Zork. See also vadding.

Constructions on this term abound. They include 'happy hacking' (a farewell), 'how's hacking?' (a friendly greeting among hackers) and 'hack, hack' (a fairly content-free but friendly comment, often used as a temporary farewell). For more on this totipotent term see " The Meaning of 'Hack'". See also neat hack, real hack.

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    So which of those 9 definitions are you saying is in use in the coffee filter example in the question? Oct 15, 2016 at 7:58
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    @MartinSmith - Definition #1.
    – Hot Licks
    Oct 15, 2016 at 12:07
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    You might want to mention the Jargon File which was the origin for The Hacker's Dictionary. Both were a compilation of terms in use within the computer/programming/engineering subculture.
    – Makyen
    Oct 15, 2016 at 16:53
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    This answer is a little wall-of-text-y. Oct 15, 2016 at 23:18
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    @FighterJet "Bodge" has much more negative connotations. Suppose you're out hiking and your pack breaks. A bodge is a repair that gets you and most of your gear home safely but then you need to do a proper repair or buy a new pack before you go hiking again. A hack would be a modification you make to your fully functioning pack to make it work better. If you tell your friends about a bodge, they're impressed that you pulled it off; if you tell your friends about a hack, they want to do it too. Oct 16, 2016 at 10:58

This might not be on the EL&U list of good, standard, commonly-available references, but it’s the right place to go for this question, and Hot Licks opened the door: The Jargon File is basically the original incarnation of The New Hacker’s Dictionary, dating to 1975.  (This is claimed by The Jargon File’s Revision History, which is replicated in The New Hacker’s Dictionary and copied into Wikipedia.  Also, I can personally attest to seeing The Jargon File in the 1970s.)

The Jargon File contains a definition of “hack” that appears to be identical to the one posted by Hot Licks (except it is formatted more readably, with line breaks), so I will not quote it.  Except for the last two sentences, which Hot Licks quoted without copying the links:

For more on this totipotent term see The Meaning of ‘Hack’.  See also neat hack, real hack.

The Meaning of ‘Hack’, a component of Appendix A. Hacker Folklore, is approximately 250 lines, mostly comprising some amusing anecdotes.  (Only half of them are computer-related, only one is computer-security-related, and one of them dates back to 1961.)  But the most important line introduces the second paragraph:

Hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity’.

The entry for neat hack says:

  1. A clever technique.
  2. A brilliant practical joke, where neatness is correlated with cleverness, harmlessness, and surprise value.

(The entry for real hack is mildly scatological and is not relevant here.)


I do not see it listed here as an official answer, so I will add it. The answer to this is without a doubt the early definition of a "Hack," and origin of the term computer hacking, as used at MIT. The MIT definition of "hack" is to "Use something in a new or novel way that it was not originally intended for." MIT has a longstanding tradition surrounding the term hack and even maintains a site dedicated to past hacks and by extension elaborate pranks requiring hacks to implement here: http://hacks.mit.edu/

  • This applies to computer hacking because you are making a piece of software act in a way it was not intended to.
  • This applies to engineering hacks because you are using tools or parts designed for one use in a manner in which they were not originally intended.
  • And this applies to life hacks because you are using things you already have around the house meant for one thing, in entirely new ways that you may not have thought about.

Joe Blow has many comments here referencing a book that he says this is in reference to, though he states the book is only a couple years old. If he can reference the book by ISBN or link we could verify, however an old archivist for Hacks at the MIT Museum released a book published in 1990 that documents the storied history of "Hacks" at MIT from the late 1800s to 1989.The Journal of the Institute for Hacks, TomFoolery, and Pranks at MIT

  • You're discussing the etymology of the senses of the term, which is interesting but unrelated to the question.
    – Fattie
    Oct 16, 2016 at 14:49
  • There are two questions: "what does it exactly mean?" and "Is it common to use [..] in such a way?" I think it's useful that at least one of the answers is correct about the first part.
    – Useless
    Oct 17, 2016 at 11:53

The term hack does have a positive meaning, although you may have to wade through a lot of dictionary entries to find it.

The Cambridge Dictionary gives:

A good solution or piece of advice: "Here are 50 life hacks that will change your life for the better."

  • Well yes, from the (risible) book "Lifehacks". As mentioned, there's actually a SE site named for the term lifehacks.stackexchange.com
    – Fattie
    Oct 15, 2016 at 23:20

I found this definition from dictionary.com and it goes as follows:

Hack - Informal

Verb( used with object)

Informal. to make use of a tip, trick, or efficient method for doing or managing(something): 

to hack a classic recipe; to hack your weekend with healthy habits.

Though here it is defined as verb, it suits the context of the example properly, and used as 'noun' rather than a verb. (The method which is used to do something efficiently (noun), rather doing something efficiently (verb).


Here is a dictionary definition of hack as a noun to describe journalists, writers and all comers who are rather second-rate in their professional activities. This is given as a broadly-based answer to the OP's headlined question and might serve as a pointer to the uncommon use of the word hack as per the OP's focused situation which he evidently considers somewhat recondite (I think it is!) Thus:

Hack: (noun) A person, as an artist or writer, who exploits, for money, his or her creative ability or training in the production of dull, unimaginative and trite work; one who produces banal and mediocre work in the hope of gaining commercial success in the arts. (Dictionary.com)

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    This is a meaning of "Hack", but doesn't make sense in this context. Oct 15, 2016 at 0:46
  • @AndrewGrimm Yes, I agree with you with regard to the OP's main text, but one might argue that my answer is correctly contextualized according to the main heading of the OP. I don't think my answer is hackneyed in this sense. Oct 15, 2016 at 0:59
  • @AndrewGrimm I have now edited my answer to try and contextualize it more on point. Oct 15, 2016 at 1:26
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    If a question title doesn't match a question body then you should fix the title, not post irrelevant answers. Oct 15, 2016 at 3:53

I don't think this meaning has found its way into a dictionary yet, but "hack" is increasingly used with a meaning similar to "repurpose." Most "life hacks" involve repurposing everyday objects. Searching for those two words together yields many results where they are used interchangeably.

  • An outstanding definition of the faddish "life hacks" term.
    – Fattie
    Oct 16, 2016 at 21:05

Besides other meanings, the word "hack" is widely used in chronology by watch makers. Yet it is used since ever or at least since chrono watches were of common use. It is referred to watches with the possibility to stop the seconds hand in order to sycronize it with other watches or chronographs: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hack_watch Surely it has nothing to do with current and most extended meaning of the word nowadays, however I bring this entry just for the sake of adding my expirience.


the introduction to "Hacking, 2nd Edition: The Art of Exploitation" By Jon Erickson defines hacking on page one thusly:

the essence of hacking is finding unintended or overlooked uses for the laws and properies of a given situation and then applying them in new and inventive ways to solve a problem

a computer hacking example: using a phone number field to enter sql code instead of numerical digits. doing this in some computer systems might produce a list of all users rather than only one specific user with a matching phone number. if this type of creative usage would compromise the security features of the application rather than simply making the application more useful, then it would be illegal hacking.

a home goods hacking example: putting a coffee filter on a camera flash instead of into a coffee maker. doing this with some types of coffee filter will diffuse light from the flash instead of filtering particulate matter from a stream of coffee.

the etymology of this word seems fairly easy to follow. originally hacking meant to cut something (e.g. wood) quickly, but imprecisely. then the word was used to describe writing computer code quickly, but imprecisely. eventually, hacking came to imply that the code written achieved the desired objective, but was not easy to understand because it used a function, library or api in an unintended or unintuitive way. this was generally done in order to avoid changing the underlying library, since that would be more time-consuming and/or risky. today, hacking is used to describe using any system or object in an unintended or unintuitive way (usually in order to achieve a result not envisioned by the original system or object designer). this is frequently done because it is faster, or cheaper than acquiring a tool that is custom-designed for the task at hand. sometimes this is done to overcome the artificial limitations of a system or object imposed by legal and/or anti-competitive practices such as intellectual property laws.

hacking, when not computer hacking, is often called "life hacking". reference: http://lifehacker.com/5672997/the-benefits-of-disobedience-why-we-hack


The term "hack" used in the sense being discussed here originated in an MIT electronics lab in the 1950s in which students maintained an elaborate electric train display. In order to implement a new feature, a student would crawl underneath the display and "hack" wires to direct electronic current and interaction with other components. This usage was easily transferred to computer programming.

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