The Language Metamorphosis

We’ve talked a lot here about how the language we use—the words, the grammar—is a constantly evolving, living, almost breathing thing. (And still, still we want to stop that process! Human nature, I guess.) I’ve written about it in various ways, from evolving spelling and compounds to singular they and even usage problems. We’ve talked about word use, literary devices, and slang too.

And—as with the word meme—I’m always a little fascinated when I see this metamorphosis happening right in front of my eyes. Such is the case with the word hack. It’s gathering a new meaning to itself.*

Not that it’s losing any of the old ones. But I was just looking at this article, “How to Hack the Habit of Creativity,” and realized we—users of the language—are developing a new meaning of the verb to hack.

There are already a zillion official meanings. (Zillion, of course, is a technical term. And by official I simply mean in the dictionary I use most, which is Merriam-Webster, both the Collegiate and the Unabridged. The following list came from M-W’s online version, to which I subscribe.)

• to cut with repeated irregular or unskillful blows
• to mangle or mutilate with or as if with cutting blows
• to trim or shape by or as if by crude or ruthless strokes
• to clear (a path or area) by cutting away vegetation
• to break up the soil and sow (seed) at the same operation — used with in <hack in wheat>
• to roughen or dress (stone or concrete) with a hack hammer (and a couple other things having to do with making walls that I don’t even understand)
• to kick the shins of (an opposing player) in rugby
• to achieve or manage <I can’t quite hack it>
• to put up with, tolerate
• to call out or give directions to (a bird dog)
• to enter (a gamecock) in a single match
• to disconcert and embarrass especially by teasing
• to cough in a short dry manner : cause short dry coughing
• to strike or hold the arm of a basketball opponent with the hand
• loaf, idle, knock — used with around <hacking around at the corner store>
• to make trite and commonplace by frequent and indiscriminate use <the word “remarkable” has been so hacked — J. H. Newman> first known use 1857
• archaic : to employ as a hack writer
• to use as a hack : let out (as a horse) for hire
• to ride or drive at an ordinary pace or over the roads as distinguished from racing or riding across country
• to become exposed or offered to common use for hire <was then hacked in the park for a year before going to stud — Dennis Craig>
• to live the life of a literary drudge or hack : do hack writing
• to ride in a hackney coach or in a taxicab
• to operate a taxicab
• to write computer programs for enjoyment and/or to gain access illegally to a computer or the data stored on it

It’s quite a list, isn’t it! But I don’t see hack as in “How to Hack the Habit of Creativity” anywhere on it.

Even so, you’ve seen this usage, I’m sure. You’ve also seen the phrase life hacks, which are how-to-do articles, usually with a creative way of doing something or fixing a problem. Look, there are websites, for heaven’s sake:

Lifehack
Lifehacker
1000lifehacks
Best Life Hacks

(I guess we all need a hobby.**)

In the article that caught my eye, hack is more about mastering something, but this meaning is still definitely related to life hacks. And nowhere in the list of Merriam-Webster definitions above is this sense of how to do, fix, remedy, or master some thing or some issue in a creative way.

Yet there it is. Fascinating.

The closest we come is the last sense: “to write computer programs for enjoyment and/or to gain access illegally to a computer or the data stored on it.” And sure enough, when I googled life hack, I discovered this new, un-dictionaried (I made that up) phrase has its origins in 1980s hacker culture, according to Wikipedia.

The term became popularized in the blogosphere and is primarily used by computer experts who suffer from information overload or those with a playful curiosity in the ways they can accelerate their workflow in ways other than programming.

“Life” refers to an individual’s productivity, personal organization, work processes, or any area the hacker ethic can be applied to solve a problem. The terms hack, hacking, and hacker have a long history of ambiguity in the computing and geek communities, particularly within the free and open source software crowds.

So there it is, scouts: the lexicological equivalent of the elusive headwaters of the Mississippi. It’s possible Merriam-Webster considers this usage to be slang, which could account for its absence. But I’d be willing to bet we’ll see it in the dictionary soon.

Once again, you are watching language change right in front of your eyes. And I totally dig it. :)

* I know because I checked. Remember, that’s what editors do: we check.

** And who could resist this?

 

 

Tweet: Hack this! Language metamorphosis in action.
Tweet: We—users of the language—are developing a new meaning of the verb to hack.
Tweet: This new, un-dictionaried (I made that up) phrase has its origins in 1980s hacker culture.

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4 Comments

  1. Is this usage perhaps the positive version of this one, in the list above?

    to achieve or manage

    With the inclusion of the idea of creativity somehow! That is some list – some I knew, some I didn’t. Language is an amazingly fluid thing, isn’t it? Thanks, as always, for your informative, well-written articles. I read them all, and look forward to seeing your byline in my inbox.

    • jamiechavez says:

      Diana, thank you so much for your words of encouragement! (You don’t know how timely they are.)

      I did look at that meaning, but when I read the example (I just can’t hack it / I just can’t manage it) it feels subtly different to me. Just my 2¢. :)

  2. In this case, “hack” definitely refers to a trick of some sort, especially in the “lifehacking” variety. A lot of times hacks are seen as workarounds, sometimes pejoratively as lame shortcuts that don’t really solve the problem at hand. If all you do is apply little tricks to your life, all you’ve done is apply little tricks rather than solve the real issues. Then again, sometimes those little tricks can get you the boost you need to really tackle the problem. Such as the exercise lifehack in understanding the concept of costuming: you put on your workout clothes to prompt you to exercise, which is a trick and you know it, but it helps you reach your end goal, which is to get in shape.

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4 Trackbacks

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    […] we have a yen to or not. Articles like “Your Fifth-Grade Teacher Versus … Well, Me,” “The Language Metamorphosis,” and “The Manuscript, the Editor, the Thief, and Her Grammar Nazi” all demonstrate my […]

  2. By Begging the Penultimate Question on 20 April, 2015 at 2:28 pm

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  4. […] and grammar—changes over time (here’s one of my posts with links to many of the rest: “The Language Metamorphosis”), but this article takes a really long view: What will the English language be like in 100 […]