The metaphor behind this modern slang term for a computer enthusiast, particularly one who breaks into other computer systems, is not certain, but it is probably one of continually hacking or chopping away at something until it finally gives way.
The noun hack, meaning an attempt or a try at something, is nearly 200 years old. It dates to as early as 1836 when it appears in “Davy Crockett’s” Exploits and Adventures in Texas (this book was alleged to be based on Crockett’s diary, but is a fraud; who wrote it, however, doesn’t matter when it comes to lexical evidence):
Better take a hack by way of trying your luck at guessing.1
It took over a hundred years, however, for the technical sense of the word to develop. The modern usage apparently stems from student slang from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. From the minutes of the M.I.T. Tech Model Railroad Club of 5 April 1955:
Mr. Eccles requests that anyone working or hacking on the electrical system turn the power off to avoid fuse blowing.2
The earliest known use of hacker, as well as the first known connection with computers, is from the 20 November 1963 issue of The Tech, the M.I.T. student paper:
Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. [...] The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. [...] Because of the “hacking,” the majority of the MIT phones are “trapped.”3
There are those that claim that hacker should not mean someone who maliciously invades computer systems, and that it really means someone proficient in computer use. But this is not the history of the term. Hacking from its beginnings at M.I.T. has always been associated with using technology to subvert institutional systems for personal use. Besides, the meanings of words are determined by usage, not etymology. So if people use hacker to mean someone who breaks into computer systems, that’s what it means.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 1.
2Joseph Onorato and Mark Schupack, Tech Model Railroad Club of M.I.T.: The First Fifty Years (Cambridge, MA, 2002), 66.
3Fred Shapiro, “Antedating of ‘Hacker,’” American Dialect Society Mailing List, 13 June 2003.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton