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The term "hacker"
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by Greg Lehey

Over the course of the years, a number of terms have arisen in the computer subculture and then been taken over into mainstream usage. Even such everyday terms as hardware and software once had an amusing sound to them.

In the course of their evolution, some words have changed their meaning, or their meanings have been modified somewhat. As Anthony Burgess observes in “A Breath of Air”, most such modifications are negative.

The word “hacker” can have the following meanings (borrowed from the New Hacker's Dictionary):

:hacker: /n./  [originally, someone who makes furniture with an
   axe] 1.  A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable
   systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most
   users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary.  2.  One who
   programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys
   programming rather than just theorizing about programming.  3.  A
   person capable of appreciating {hack value}.  4.  A person who is
   good at programming quickly.  5.  An expert at a particular program,
   or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix
   hacker'.  (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who
   fit them congregate.)  6.  An expert or enthusiast of any kind.  One
   might be an astronomy hacker, for example.  7.  One who enjoys the
   intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing
   limitations.  8.  [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to
   discover sensitive information by poking around.  Hence `password
   hacker', `network hacker'.  The correct term for this sense is
   {cracker}.

   The term `hacker' also tends to connote membership in the global
   community defined by the net (see {network, the} and
   {Internet address}).  It also implies that the person described
   is seen to subscribe to some version of the hacker ethic (see
   {hacker ethic}).

   It is better to be described as a hacker by others than to describe
   oneself that way.  Hackers consider themselves something of an
   elite (a meritocracy based on ability), though one to which new
   members are gladly welcome.  There is thus a certain ego
   satisfaction to be had in identifying yourself as a hacker (but if
   you claim to be one and are not, you'll quickly be labeled
   {bogus}).  See also {wannabee}.

The popular press has decided to use the word “hacker” only in sense (8). In any documentation I write, and any documentation on this site, I use it in the senses 1 to 5 in the list above.

What do you think? In April 1988, ZDnet conducted a survey. They use the word “hacker” to mean “cracker”, but their readers didn't. When I looked, approximately 80% of the responders agreed with my usage. I wonder how things have changed in the intervening 10 years.

The Oxford English Dictionary's viewpoint

The Oxford English Dictionary is considered the ultimate reference to the English language (if not the American). The entry for hacker(n) contains:

3. a. A person with an enthusiasm for programming or using computers as an end in itself. colloq. (orig. U.S.).

1976 J. Weizenbaum Computer Power & Human Reason iv. 118 The compulsive programmer, or hacker as he calls himself, is usually a superb technician. 1977 Time 5 Sept. 39/1 Some 500 retail outlets have opened in the past couple of years to sell and service microcomputers and serve as hangouts for the growing legions of home-computer nuts, or `hackers' as they call themselves. 1982 Sci. Amer. Oct. 110/1 In the jargon of computer science a hacker is someone who spends much of his time writing computer programs. 1983 Byte May 298/1 `Hacker' seems to have originated at MIT. The original German/Yiddish expression referred to someone so inept as to make furniture with an axe, but somehow the meaning has been twisted so that it now generally connotes someone obsessed with programming and computers but possessing a fair degree of skill and competence. 1984 Which Micro? Dec. 17/3 A hacker might spend more time playing his own version of PacMan than on useful program development. 1986 A & B Computing Nov. 16/3 The on-screen help is for the casual user but there's plenty for the hacker who wants to tinker with the software and tailor it for special purposes.

b. A person who uses his skill with computers to try to gain unauthorized access to computer files or networks. colloq.

1983 Daily Tel. 3 Oct. 3/1 A hacker--computer jargon for an electronic eavesdropper who by-passes computer security systems--yesterday penetrated a confidential British Telecom message system being demonstrated live on BBC-TV. 1985 U.S.A. Today 18 Oct. a1/4 A gang of 23 teen-age computer hackers has done `significant damage' to Chase Manhattan Bank's records. 1986 TeleLink Sept.-Oct. 25/2 Just for fun, the hackers decided to drop a few APBs (All Points Bulletins) into the local police computer, with the result that, when out driving in his car, he was repeatedly stopped.

You'll notice two points here:

  1. The term was originally used for honest hackers.
  2. All the references to “hacker” as a cracker come from the popular press.

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