Hacking the Etymology of “Hack”

Everybody’s talking about “life hacks” lately.  This is not something that’s really grabbed my interest until recently, but today when I read this Betty comic strip contrasting positive and negative meanings of the word “hack” I decided to investigate it further.

Merriam-Webster online defines “life hack” as “a usually simple and clever tip or technique for accomplishing some familiar task more easily and efficiently.” The citation of the first use of the phrase in this sense is dated 2004.

How did a word traditionally associated with crude and destructive behavior come to connote ingenuity and efficiency?

The earliest meaning of the word in English cited in the Oxford English Dictionary is “To cut or chop with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion; to mangle or mutilate, esp. with jagged cuts, so as to damage or destroy.”

The first citation puzzled me a bit at first until I realized bad is a variant spelling of “bade,” the past tense of the word “bid.”
A maiden bad te kinge his heued, and he hit bad of acken.
So this means "A maiden asked the king for his head, and he asked for it to be hacked off.” This is from a early 13th century collection of sayings, so there’s no context given; but it sounds like an excerpt from the story of Salome, King Herod, and John the Baptist.

The other earliest citation, from the Ancrene Riwle, also denotes decapitation, with a very different spelling:
Hahackede of his heaued [hacked off his head]
Hacking is mostly associated with rough, crude cutting, as in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, where the cowardly Falstaff falsely claims to have fought ferociously: “My sworde hackt like a handsaw.” (He had actually deliberately damaged it by hacking at a stone in order to create evidence of his courage.)

Certain sounds have been associated with hacking: chattering teeth, stuttering, quibbling—but the one that persists is referred to in the phrase “a hacking cough.”

People could also hack unwanted trees and weeds, and hack through brush to get somewhere, leading to a whole tradition of positive meanings having to do with working one’s way through obstacles to reach a goal. By the 1930s, Americans were using the term to mean “manage,” “accomplish,” “cope with,” or “tolerate,” especially in negative contexts: “I don’t know if I can hack it.”

Some speculate that this may be a variation on the earlier expression “to cut it” as in “cut the mustard” (see my comments on this on p. 74 of Common Errors in English Usage  “cut the muster/cut the mustard”).

"Hacking" became a computer term in the mid-1970s. The OED cites three successive meanings which are still current:
 To engage in writing computer programmes or software, esp. purely for personal satisfaction. 
To modify (computer software, code, hardware components, etc.), esp. in order to provide a (typically inelegant) solution or workaround to a problem, to provide (a solution or workaround) by doing this. 
To gain unauthorized access to or control over a computer system, network, a person's telephone communications, etc., typically remotely. 
It is this last definition that has stuck in the popular mind: computer hacking is seen as definitely a bad thing, whereas hackers themselves often have more complex attitudes toward the word. They often insist on using the word in positive senses. They tend to view hacking not as crude and destructive, but as creative and elegant, which leads by analogy to the expression “life hacking.”

Those unfamiliar with any of these positive connotations for the word are mostly likely to use it negatively. People are always announcing on Facebook that their account may have been hacked because people they are already friends with are receiving fake friend requests. It doesn’t take advanced computer skills to set up a fraudulent FB account with your picture and name and send notices out to all your friends.

“Hack” can have a host of other meanings.

For instance, in American slang to hack someone off is to annoy them.

But how about “hackneyed”?

To understand this word we have to go back to an unrelated meaning of the word “hack” as traced in the OED. In the renaissance a hack was “a horse used for hire. Also: an inferior or worn out horse, a nag.”

But the word was modestly upgraded in the 18th Century:
A horse, esp. one of a calm disposition, used for general riding on a road, path, etc., as distinct from cross-country, military, or other kind of riding; a road horse. In later use also: a ridden show horse of any of several breeds and sizes, with a pleasing appearance and excellent manners. 
So a carriage horse, particularly one pulling a vehicle for hire, could be a hack, as could the driver, and he could drive a hackney coach. Hackney cabriolets (two-wheeled carriages with a folding roof, drawn by a single horse) were commonly used for paid transportation: hence the word “cab” for such a vehicle. After the invention of the automobile, the term was transferred to taxis and their drivers, both being called “hacks.”

But another variation of the word’s etymology branched off around 1700:
Originally: a person who may be hired to do any kind of work as required; a drudge, a lackey . In later use: spec. a person who hires himself or herself out to do any kind of literary work; (hence) a writer producing dull, unoriginal work, esp. to order.
Journalists, sometimes considered an inferior species of writer, also began to be called “hacks” and their writing “hackneyed.”

Wondering whether  I had any life hacks to share, I thought about my technique for preparing green beans for cooking, but a quick search demonstrated that it’s pretty common knowledge, if not yet hackneyed.

I can hack this disappointment—not really hacked off at all.

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