Hack

Is it just me, or does it seem that there’s a lot of bad stuff in the world these days? That the daily news is full of doom and gloom?

Not only that, but things that used to be good have turned out to be bad. This may be due to the thing itself, or the way that it’s used. Single-use plastic, social media, a meat-rich diet might all have once been hailed as beneficial or a great symbol of modernity, but such things are often viewed less kindly nowadays, and for many different reasons.

But what about the other way around – can you think of any examples of things that used to be bad, but are now considered good? Things that have reformed, that have redeemed themselves?

Well, the word hack may be just such a thing. This word has evolved quite a lot over the last decades, and we can look at old editions of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary to illustrate.

Here is the entry from the 3rd edition of OALD, published back in 1974:Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary, 3rd editionWe can see that the majority of meanings of hack refer to something bad: cutting something roughly or clumsily (including bodies – very gory!), coughing, a hard and boring job.

Now let’s fast-forward a quarter of a century to the publication of the 6th edition of OALD in the year 2000 and see what has happened to the entry for hack:file1-3The rough chopping of bodies still figures (see sense 1 above), and the computing meaning has been added (sense 3). This meaning is quite familiar to us these days – we often hear about hackers and hacking in the news, it’s one of those bad things in the news that I mentioned earlier.

And we’ve got an idiomatic newcomer in “I can’t hack it” (sense 4), used when you’re in a bad situation and you can’t cope. Still bad!

The noun still describes two bad-sounding jobs, and we’ve got some negative derivatives and compounds (hacker, hacked off, etc.).

And so as we entered the new millennium hack was still bad. But let’s bring things up to date to 2019, when we have more new meanings to include.

In addition to the old negatives, there is now a more positive computing sense for both verb and noun, referring to working quickly (although not necessarily officially or elegantly) to create something:

  • We spent the morning hacking around with HTML and building web pages.
  • I could maybe try to come up with some sort of hack to fix that bug.

And the newest meaning of the noun is undeniably positive: “a strategy or technique that you use in order to manage an activity in a more efficient way”.

So now a hack will actually make a task or an activity, maybe even your whole life, better or easier.

Have a look at these examples:

  • Another hack that will save time is to cover your side mirrors with a plastic bag when freezing rain is forecast.
  • Have you got any clever parenting hacks?
  • Why not try these genius food hacks to save time?
  • This useful website offers good lifehacks for better use of your time and your technology.

The Internet is full of hacks these days, from the best way to perfectly fold a T-shirt, to using duct tape to open tough lids (yes, honestly!), or how to create a watering can out of an empty milk container. They are always called hacks or lifehacks these days – try putting the terms in your Internet search engine and see what handy tips and tricks you can find.

So there you go folks, hack is something that used to be bad but is now good. Well, sometimes. You know, apart from the criminal activity of getting into someone else’s computer or phone, roughly cutting up things (often bodies, it seems), a bad cough, a poorly paid and boring writing job, etc. But still, it’s a chink of light in what can sometimes seem a gloomy world!


Jennifer Bradbery is Digital Product Development Manager in the ELT Dictionaries department at Oxford University Press.

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