Is there a history behind the word "hacker" and "hacking"?

Could it have anything to do with "hashing" i.e. using a hash function?

  • 4
    Hacker From the jargon file. A source for all hacker related questions! Jun 11, 2012 at 13:48
  • Related to this question, what are the roots of the word "hack" used in this context: "He is a talentless hack."
    – Ariel
    Jun 11, 2012 at 13:50
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    Of note, common 'hacker lore' has it that there's a distinction between hackers and crackers. Crackers break into computer systems, hackers do not necessarily. Hacking is more an engineering thing than the malicious computer security meaning the media portrays (technically a subset), "e.g. he hacked his washing machine" Jun 11, 2012 at 14:38
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    @Ariel: that use of hack is well-attested as deriving from hackney carriage, implying a tired old cab-horse, and also giving us hackneyed. How and why Hackney gave its name to a horse-drawn cab I know not. Jun 13, 2012 at 13:04

4 Answers 4


Following the Jargon file,

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe]

That's essentially the gist: you don't produce quality software, you don't develop, you don't project. You take an idea or someone else's piece of software and hack it roughly with a software equivalent of an axe, to form something that fits your own idea of "mostly working" — sometimes the idea being quite far from what general populace would find acceptable. Bypass limitations imposed for business or political (or even safety) reasons, bind different completely mismatching systems together for some weird results, and generally do to computers things that can't be named by any professional terminology, but are quite equivalent to hacking some item with an axe to make it function as something entirely different (say, turning an armchair into a swing).

So, this is not a morph of some word or direct use of some obscure meaning of 'to hack', it's a metaphorical use of the very basic meaning — to cut or chop with repeated and irregular blows.

  • What's the 'Jargon file'? If it is online, can you edit your answer to put in the link? If it is paper, can you give a fuller reference? Also, if you are quoting the source, can you block off eactly which part is quoted?
    – Mitch
    Jun 11, 2012 at 15:14
  • The vast majority of the Jargon file link disagrees with your answer. Apr 9, 2014 at 18:07

It's not related to hashing.

The roots of hacker can be found from the Tech Model Railroad Club of MIT. In 1959, TMRC member Peter R. Samson complied a dictionary, which contained both the root work, hack, and its derivative, hacker. The italics are Samson comments from 2006:

HACK: 1) something done without constructive end; 2) a project under-
           taken on bad self-advice; 3) an entropy booster; 4) to produce,
           or attempt to produce, a hack.

I saw this as a term for an unconventional or unorthodox application of technology, typically deprecated for engineering reasons. There was no specific suggestion of malicious intent (or of benevolence, either). Indeed, the era of this dictionary saw some "good hacks:" using a room-sized computer to play music, for instance; or, some would say, writing the dictionary itself.

HACKER: one who hacks, or makes them.

A hacker avoids the standard solution. The hack is the basic concept; the hacker is defined in terms of it.

Perhaps the original meaning was similar to hacking through an immense jungle with a machete, it can go on forever.

In fact, the OED also defines hack as a tool for breaking or chopping up, dating from before 1300:

He lened him þan a-pon his hak, Wit seth his sun þus-gat he spak.

And hacker follows. From 1620:

One good hacker, being a lusty labourer, will at good ease hack or cut more than half an acre of ground in a day.

So the sense of mangling and bodging together software and/or hardware isn't too far off.

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    Thank you for a good answer and for rejecting my hypothesis that it was related to hashing. Jun 11, 2012 at 14:39
  • Here's some modern definitions of hacker, written by programmers.
    – Hugo
    Jun 11, 2012 at 14:47

The OED’s definition 1d of hacking is

The use of a computer for the satisfaction it gives; the activity of a hacker

The earliest citation is dated 1976:

The compulsive programmer spends all the time he can working on one of his big projects. ‘Working’ is not the word he uses; he calls what he does ‘hacking’.

In the same year, hacker is found meaning

A person who uses his skill with computers to try to gain unauthorized access to computer files or networks.

My own speculation is that the technological meaning may be related to the use of the verb hack to mean To cope with, manage, accomplish.

  • Thanks for the investigation dating the usage to 1976. Another answer here connect the use of the word hacker with a furniture-hacker who hacks to make furniture. Jun 11, 2012 at 14:40

The Chinese love to transliterate words and find a parallel meaning. The English word hacker is translated as 黑客 [hēi kè], literally “dark visitor,” an apt translation for the hacker’s covert actions.

While other have given you a correct English etymology, I hope that this back translation will give you some insight into the connotation. It is more at "secretive" and "destructive," and the resemblence to a computer hash function is accidental.

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