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‘Hacker’ is a badge of honour where I come from

A trait that is common to logophiles everywhere is the linguistic pet peeve: a word or phrase that sets our teeth on edge when we encounter it.  A colleague of mine cringes whenever she hears someone refer to an initialism as an acronym, for example.

Pet peeves

One of my pet peeves relates to my profession as a software developer, and the use of the word hacker with respect to technology. Though a look at the currently published OED entry will give you an earliest occurrence from 1976, our more recent research shows it originating in the subculture of 1960s computing. When this original sense was used, being called a hacker was a badge of honour, denoting as it did a computer expert with unusual abilities on both machine and software. It is closely associated with geek in that many hackers are also geeks; however, since the 1960s this sense has widened to include fields of technology outside computing. We acknowledge this in Oxford Dictionaries Online: our secondary sense of the word is an enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user’.

Unfortunately for me the primary sense of the word has evolved, and it is the widely accepted sense of the last few decades – ‘a person who uses computers to gain unauthorized access to data’ – that raises my ire. The current English dictionary in ODO does have to record the most commonly accepted meaning first, but it still riles me that the usage has evolved like this.  Great, I take it as a compliment when a neat piece of my code is described as a hack, but I draw the line at being called a criminal!

A bounty of $1337

So if it behoves me to rescue the reputation of the true hacker from the underworld, where can I start? Sadly, the first two words that come to mind in ODO from hacker culture are of little support, coming as they do from a less ethical side of the subculture and lending credence to our primary sense of ‘hacker’. Phreaking and warez both relate to illegal activities, the former being the manipulation of the phone network to obtain free calls and the latter being illegally copied software. This branch of hackerdom also gave birth to leet, the practice of creating slang words by replacing letters with numbers and symbols. The irony of our dictionary entry for someone immersed in the subculture is that the word ‘leet’, a contraction of ‘elite’, is almost never spelled as such, instead being written as the numeral ‘1337’. But then dictionary entries record the spelling used by the masses rather than the in-jokes of small specialist communities. Google pay homage to the numeric spelling by rewarding the finders of bugs in their software with a bounty of $1337.

So by exposing my pet peeve to the world I have almost certainly exposed myself to the ridicule of some of my peers.  While I’ve explained my views on the word ‘hacker’ I’ve never immersed myself in hacker subculture to the extent that some of them have and when they read this article I’m sure I’ll receive many emails from friends laden with ironic 1337 h4xx0r-speak. I will resist the urge to reply to them in kind though; to do that would be to risk accusation of being a script kiddie, and I wouldn’t want that at all!

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.