My latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, “Unpacking ‘Hack’,” looks at the the myriad meanings of hack, from “crude chop” to “cough” to “cab” to “computer break-in.” I explore the word’s dual etymology and spend some time on current usages such as life hack and hackathon.
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All of these hacks branch out from two Middle English sources. In the 13th century, acken or hacke meant “to cut with heavy blows in an irregular fashion.” A century later, a hak or hake was a tool for chopping; the word later came to be applied to the gash made by such a tool. Early on, a hacker was a person who chopped wood, but in late-1940s America it meant a tennis or golf player of mediocre ability and poor form – someone who “hacks” at the ball instead of stroking it elegantly, as the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang puts it.
Meanwhile, English had acquired hackney from Old French haquenée around 1300. In both languages, the word meant an ordinary horse – as opposed to a war horse or a hunting steed – with an ambling gait. Early on, such horses were hired out, and so hackney came to mean “a horse or carriage kept for hire.” The “ordinary” sense gave rise to an extended meaning of “common drudge” and to a shortened form, hack. (It also produced an adjective, hackneyed, that means “trite” or “commonplace.”) By the 19th century a hack was anyone whose less-than-stellar services could be hired – such as, for example, a political hack, party hack, or hack writer. By the 1910s hack was also U.S. slang for a hearse or, alternatively, a taxicab or its driver.