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"Hacker" first meant:
A person with a persistent cough. 7%
An amateur golfer 7%
One who makes furniture with an axe 25%
A murderer who uses knives; a butcher 11%
An incompetent in any field 37%
A cab driver 11%

Votes: 27

 Amateur Golf and the Computer Criminal

 Author:  Topic:  Posted:
Jun 13, 2002
It is a certainty today that any journalist, co-worker or friend who uses the word "hacker" to describe a computer criminal will be ritualisticly hectored by dogmatic computer enthusiasts with tedious stories of the allegedly benign origins of the word "hacker." Sometimes these origins are ascribed to the MIT railroad club of the 1950s, and sometimes they are placed earlier, in the engineering side of the American industrial home front of World War II. Regardless of historical location, the mythology so presented is consistent in its insistence that the word was wholly positive in every aspect, devoid of any negative connotation whatsoever. By the early 1980s, however, the word was being used by computer enthusiasts to describe the criminal element in their midst, a usage that the press picked up as computers spread into the home and the public consciousness. How did this apparent change come about? The answer, I believe, lies in the game of golf.

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In all the tales of the early use of the word "hacker" to describe clever or unconventional engineering, a most salient detail is always left out: why on earth was the word "hack" chosen to describe this sort of tinkering? On the face of it, the word seems to mean quite the opposite of the activity it is supposed to describe; it denotes rending asunder rather than assembling odd parts into a new whole.

In the culture surrounding the game of golf, however, the applicability of the word "hacker" is immediately apparent. The term is used to describe an amateur player of mediocre skill but great enthusiasm. In golf, the choice of the word "hacker" is obvious, as the word instantly brings to mind an image of a man chopping away at the turf with a club in an effort to move the ball down the fairway. There is no mystery here, as there is when the word is used to describe a grown man playing with model railroads.

In golf culture, the word "hacker" is neither wholly good nor wholly bad in its connotations. On the one hand, it is used in a positive manner, implying affection for those who, though lacking talent or training, nonetheless manage to eventually land the ball in the cup. On the other hand, it is used negatively, to suggest that the person so described lacks the initiative to improve his game, or the consideration to replace the divots thrown up by all of that energetic flailing, thus leaving the course a mess for the next foursome.

The next piece of our puzzle comes from the history of computers, but it is a point often overlooked or conveniently omitted by those who seek to place strict language controls on the meaning and usage of the word "hacker." The piece of history in question is the fact that early computers were not constructed by undergraduates and amateur technology enthusiasts (in those days, these people would have been ham radio operators, or some such), but rather by highly trained, disciplined scientists and engineers with strict project requirements, accountable to budgetary oversight of the universities or government agencies in which they worked.

If these scientists and engineers had been caught using their allotted grants, time, and equipment to do something so frivolous as play space-fantasy games, they would have found their funding cut off in an instant, and all hopes of tenure dashed. These people would not have called themselves "hackers," as is implicitly confirmed by the very origin-myths advanced by modern-day computer enthusiasts, which always describe computers "becoming available to" or "arriving in" communities where the term had acquired its new technological meaning.

We must step back, now, and ask again: why on earth was the word "hacker" chosen to describe unconventional, amateur, and enthusiastic applications of technology? Whether this happened in an industrial WWII setting or an academic 1950s setting, it seems an inescapable conclusion that the term was borrowed from the golf culture.

During the war, golf was on the rise in the United States, in the process of transformation from a rich man's game to an everyman's game. At the same time, science and particularly engineering were developing into avenues whereby a poor man might become a moderately rich man. Golf and engineering were well suited to one another, and borrowing of terminology would have been quite natural.

In the 1950s, golf in the US was in its heyday, a fully integrated part of everyday life. Borrowing terms from the world of golf in this era would have been so widespread that it would have seemed odd if a given discipline didn't borrow language from the game.

In either scenario, the word would not have been appropriated to describe disciplined, knowledgeable, and responsible professionals and academics. It would instead have been used to describe unskilled but enthusiastic amateurs- employees driven by the necessity of war, or students with access to equipment but unburdened by immediate goals or requirements for its use.

The first such usage was most likely affectionate, and therefor adopted by those it was applied to as well as their foremen or academic advisors. The negative associations would have been imported from the world of golf as well, however, and so it would have been understood that someone described as a "hacker" might not seek knowledge or training beyond that needed to get the job at hand done, and such a person might leave a bit of a mess behind, as well. Since the people so described were mostly young, these faults would have been tolerated as youthful lapses rather than character flaws.

As time wore on, it became more and more clear that certain individuals did not outgrow the adolescent excesses of their technological tinkering, and so the negative implications of the word grew to greater significance. At the same time, the study and use of computers was expanding and establishing a place in the academic and professional world, and with this establishment came new titles: Programmer, Software Engineer, and Computer Scientist. People in positions of respect embraced these titles, distancing themselves from the word "hacker," and thus (perhaps unintentionally) accellerating the process of converting a somewhat benign term to a largely negative one.

By the early 1980s, this process was nearly complete. So when the press first learned of computer crime, and interviewed professional programmers and computer scientists, these respected members of the computing world referred to the new crop of criminal-minded home-computing enthusiasts as mere "hackers," implying marginal skill, lack of training, and total absence of the ethics present in respectable, established organizations and professions.

"Hacker" meant "computer enthusiast" before it acquired its present meaning of "computer criminal." It meant "amateur technologist" before it meant "computer enthusiast." And it meant "amateur golfer" before it meant "amateur technologist." Computer enthusiasts do not hold the first claim on the word. Nor, I suspect, will they hold the last.

Several theories have been advanced here at Adequacy to account for the persistence with which modern computer enthusiasts seek to whitewash the meaning and history of the word, and then take the laundered word to describe themselves. The origins of the word in the culture of golf suggest a new motive. Use of the word "hacker" creates and preserves an expectation of mediocrity in the listener. The user, in this light, is maneuvering for a large handicap.

This particularly true when the audience is of a generation raised in the heyday of golf in America, a generation that happens to be at the head of most businesses and academic departments in that nation. If a computer enthusiast manages to create and maintain low expectations, then he (for they are, statistically, male) is much less likely to be fired for writing brittle, inefficient, undocumented code, or using company time and resources to play video games.

Computer enthusiasts who are not explicitly aware of this causal chain certainly grasp it on a received cultural level. Thus, we might expect that those with the lowest levels of technical skill, discipline, and professional ethic should be the most vociferous in their efforts to be referred to as "hackers."

Does this prediction bear out? Until the results of controlled psychological studies are available, we’ll just have to look around us, and judge for ourselves.


Let's get this straight once and for all (none / 0) (#2)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 01:21:30 AM PST
"Hack" is a nineteenth century abbreviation for "hackney carriage", meaning a horse-drawn taxi carriage. Compared to private carriages, hacks were scruffy and had scrawny, overworked horses.

By analogy, the term came to be applied to "hack writers": overworked, underpaid, underskilled writers for hire at the lowest end of the market.

In the early days of computing this was naturally applied to inferior, amateurish programmers. Being undereducated and entirely ignorant outside their specialities, some of these hacks failed to realise this was an insult, and stared using the term "hackers" themselves.

Later the term "hacker" began to be used to describe criminals who break into computer systems. This usage has now become standard, rendering all previous usages to historical interest only.

Dunce. (none / 0) (#3)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 01:49:42 AM PST
The term "hacker" dates back to the eraly 1980's when ax-murderer movies like Friday the 13th were just starting to become popular. The term was used to describe computer enthusiasts because they invariably were (and invariably still are) scary loner types who seemed like the kind of people who would turn out to be ax-murderers.

Not quite. (5.00 / 1) (#4)
by RobotSlave on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 04:16:52 AM PST
"Hack" in the sense of "cab driver" did in fact come from "hackney," but that word referred not to the driver or the carriage, but to the horse, and more specificly, to the the horse's gait. This "hack kneed" gait rendered the beast unsuitable as a mount, and thus doomed it to a life as a lowly draft animal.

It is worth noting, too, that the word "hacker," in the sense of "criminal," does not seem to have derived from the taxi-driver term "hackney," and may even have predated it. Violent criminals (particularly highwaymen, it seems) were referred to as "hackers" contemporaneously, for the obvious bloody reasons. This is covered in greater detail in the OED, if you need a reference.

By the time technology-enthusiasts adopted the term, the meanings above had fallen out of use in the US-- "hackney" had been supplanted by "cabbie," and while "hack" still referred to an incompetent in many fields (usually writing, though), "hacker" was used exclusively to describe amateur golfers. This latter usage was the only proximate source available when the technologists adopted the term.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

hack as related to computers (none / 0) (#5)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 09:17:01 AM PST
As an old-time programmer, I hope I can shed some light on this issue.
In the "old days" (and I can speak from personal experience about this), hacking meant quick-and-dirty modification of existing code, or if you will, "programming with an axe".
This is consistent with the usual meaning of the verb hack which is:
"to cut with repeated crude or ruthless blows".
As for how "hacking" came to be "cool", we old-timers remember the pre-hacker days of phone phreaking and Phrack magazine.
As phreaking became more computer-related, we have phrack --> hack (also trading on the usual quick-and-dirty computer meaning of "hack" at the time).
Modern "sanitized" hackers are just trying to assume the "coolness" of the old-time phreakers.
P.S. - Incidentally, the use of "cracker" to describe a "black hat" hacker is ludicrous. Presumably they derived this from "safe cracker", but cracker normally means "white trash" as in the old slave saying:
"I have the cheese, now all I need is the cracker."

Further to my comments (none / 0) (#6)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 11:35:14 AM PST
The phreakers were viewed as counter-culture heroes, since they were attacking the establishment (Ma Bell). So labelling oneself as a "hacker" was "cool". However, when being counter-culture starting falling out of fashion, calling oneself a "hacker" wasn't a good idea. To solve this problem, the hackers resorted to historical revisionism, whereby they claimed that the original computer scentists and enthusiasts called themselves hackers, and that is where the term hacker came from.

You'll have to do better than that. (none / 0) (#8)
by RobotSlave on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 01:52:26 PM PST
Your amusing little account is all very well and good, and it rather conveniently backs a previously advanced theory, but the history you suggest is at odds with every serious, documented study of the matter.

Citing a newsletter that first appeared in 1985, and calling it "pre-hacker" and "old-timer" isn't helping your case much.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Glad to see that you're on the (golf) ball (none / 0) (#10)
by Anonymous Reader on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 03:29:22 PM PST
And that you didn't fall for my wordplay that phrack --> hack.
I believe that the derivation is phrack=phreak+hack.
However, I contend that hacking (as in breaking into computers) is derived from its earlier (and sometimes current) use as in quick-and-dirty programming, which is in turn derived from hacking as "cutting with repeated crude or ruthless blows".
Your theory that computer hacking is derived from golf hacking is circuitous, and falls to Occam's razor.
You exaggerate the popularity of golf, as opposed to say bowling.
Anyway, it is more common to refer to an amateurish golfer as a "duffer" than a "hacker", so why isn't breaking into computers called duffing?
(Your definition of "hacker" as a "computer enthusiast" is historical revisionism, masking the "falling out of grace" of the phreakers, the fathers of the hackers.)

Feel free to cite your sources. (none / 0) (#11)
by RobotSlave on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 04:17:36 PM PST
Look, if you've got any evidence whatsoever that technology enthusiasts took the word "hacker" from the timber industry, then feel free to share your findings with us.

If you think I'm overstating the social phenomenon of golf in the post-war US, then you're clearly unfamiliar with the period in question. Do a bit of reading. Post-war American culture is fascinating stuff.

Occam's Razor, I'm afraid, doesn't cut out intermediate meanings in etymology.

A "duffer" is an amateur golfer, yes, but a "duffer" is also a lazy (and often self-aware) amateur golfer. A "hacker," on the other hand, is a particularly incompetent and enthusiastic amateur golfer. "Hacker" is clearly the golf term better suited to describe amateur technology hobbyists.

Finally, it is a well established fact that amateur technology enthusiasts were using the word "hacker" before they started using computers, so your imagined genesis in an axe-metaphor applied to programming, in addition to being nonsensical, is provably untrue.

You lost all credibility when I caught you in the lie the first time. I'll keep the discussion going out of courtesy, but only up to a point. As I'm sure you know, we do not permit trolling here at the Adequacy.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Oh well (none / 0) (#13)
by Anonymous Reader on Sat Jun 15th, 2002 at 12:46:39 PM PST
It appears that you are taking this etymology topic rather seriously (perhaps too seriously unless this a thesis dissertation of yours).
I believe the etymology of hacker is best covered by the following quote:
"Their scientific jargon is so wholly
No one can hope to understand it fully,
Not as intelligence goes nowadays.
And they may go chattering like jays
And take delight and trouble in their chatter
But for all that they'll never solve the matter."
- Geoffrey Chaucer, "The Canterbury Tales"
(P.S. - Before you object, this is from a modern translation. I recommend that you examine the context of this quote before passing judgement on it.)

I didn't mean to upset you. (none / 0) (#14)
by RobotSlave on Sat Jun 15th, 2002 at 03:40:02 PM PST
This is Adequacy. We do not dumb things down for the rabble, here. If you're going to quote Chaucer, then quote Chaucer, please, and not some bowdlerization.

  Considereth, sires, how that, in ech estaat,
Bitwixe men and gold ther is debaat
So ferforth that unnethes is ther noon.
This multiplying blent so many oon
That in good feith I trowe that it bee
The cause grettest of swich scarsetee.
Philosophres speken so mystily
In this craft that men kan nat come therby,
For any wit that men han now-a-dayes.
They mowe wel chiteren as doon thise jayes,
And in hir termes sette hir lust and peyne,
But to hir purpos shul they nevere atteyne.
A man may lightly lerne, if he have aught,
To multiplie, and brynge his good to naught!

I am indeed taking this topic seriously. There is a gaping hole in the history of the word "hacker" that modern computers-enthusiasts have been turning a blind eye to, and I think it is time to not only examine and fill that gap, but also explore their reasons for ignoring it.

The context of the quote is of course one of deceit, and in drawing attention to it I believe you are merely confessing to your own fabrication. If you would instead accuse me or my study of deception, then you will have to put together an argument more convincing than allusive name-calling.

I think it would be more interesting to instead compare the Raymondite computer-enthusiast to Chaucer's Yeoman's Canon, thereby suggesting that these Orwellian language contortions are being perpetuated in the service of selling false alchemy.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

I'm semi-impressed (none / 0) (#15)
by Anonymous Reader on Sat Jun 15th, 2002 at 07:09:14 PM PST
That you found the exact source of that quote. However, it looks like you took the easy way out by just cutting-and-pasting the Middle English text from some electronic document.
You seem to delight in giving an imagined adversial slant to my last statements. My asking you to examine the context of the quote was to ensure that you knew what the quote was referring to.
Obviously "They" refers to the users of incomprehensible jargon (the alchemists). The modern day analogy is computer enthusiasts. So I'm basically saying that no one can "fully" understand the term "hacker".
Whether you are or are not a computer enthusiast, I don't see the point of your being offended by Chaucer's characterization of jargon users as chattering jays.
You are taking this matter too personally.

Au Contraire. (5.00 / 1) (#17)
by RobotSlave on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 02:52:11 AM PST
I didn't just "cut and paste" the middle english source of your quote; I also included extra lines to establish context.

Naturally, you didn't notice this.

I understand completely the meaning you attempted to convey by quoting Chaucer out of context.

I draw attention to the larger context of the Canon's Yeoman's tale to point out the fact that Chaucer was not, as you suggest, saying that the language of alchemists was inherently incomprehensible, but rather, he was suggesting that deliberately inscrutable nonsense was deployed by corrupt alchemists in an effort entirely motivated by personal gain.

Personally? I'm hardly taking this personally. There is a much larger scholarly issue at hand.

Keep at it, ESR-disciple. I think we've found a very interesting subject to decipher.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Stickler (2.00 / 1) (#18)
by Anonymous Reader on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 08:23:28 AM PST
I see that you are a stickler for precise phrasing, but given your etymological bent, I would expect no less of you.
You will note that I did not (and do not) deny the existence in the past of benign MIT tinkerers who called themselves "hackers". Whether this usage of hacker is derived from golf is of little interest to me.
What is of interest to me are the independent phreakers/hackers whose use of "hack" derives from my posited roots, rather than the then little-known "wimpy" MITers and their descendents. It is not logical that a counter-culture group would adopt a term derived from the "uncool" mainstream sport of golf.
Given the predilection of youth for tough or "cool" nicknames, many would naturally adopt the monicker of "hacker" in honour of the phreakers/hackers, counter-culture heroes. When the phreakers fell out of grace, many people did not want to be associated with "real" criminals. Casting about, they dredged up the lesser-known MITers and their descendents. What followed was a jumping from a "bad" family tree to a "good" one. To bolster their new-found lineage, the extent of the "good" fore-fathers was exaggerated. (If you are going to quibble about my previous use of "claimed" parentage, note that a claim can be based on either truth or falsehood.)
As for my "lie" regarding phrack-->hack, this prevarication was thrown in to see who would fall for it. Given your erudition, you were not one of the "suckers". Excuse me if I do not match your seriousness in this matter.
As to how many of today's computer hackers (enthusiasts or criminals) come from the phreaker family tree or the MIT family tree, I leave this question to historical statisticians. Given the nature of youth to favour rebellion, I suspect that most come from the phreaker tree. I therefore object to the insistence that the primary definition of "hacker" is enthusiast rather than break-in artist.
If you are truly looking for rigorous verbal jousting, I suggest that you submit your theory to an etymological journal for review by your peers, rather than spend further time picking apart my somewhat light-hearted analysis. Please inform us as to when your views appear in print.
P.S. - Labelling me as an ESR supporter just because my views do not exactly match yours is not worthy of you.

Nice change of subject, AR. (5.00 / 1) (#19)
by RobotSlave on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 01:32:16 PM PST
The problem with any explanation of the word "hacker" in counter-cultural terms is that the word in the sense of "technology hobbyist" predates the rise of American counter-culture in the 1960s. It also predates the type of telephone crime referred to as "phreaking," which had its origins in the mid-1960s.

You overlook the fact that it is quite clear that "hacker" took on a criminal meaning for computer enthusiasts very early in the history of computing. The later chapters of Levy's book are packed with descriptions of students engaging in breaking and entering, theft, and other crimes, at MIT in particular, and then referring to it as "hacking."

I don't contest the notion that the word originally had negative meanings, and that contemporary computers-enthusiasts are engaged in an attempt to whitewash those meanings. In fact, I believe I've found the origin of these efforts, and Adequacy will expose it at length when we have time.

I don't think you're quite as "light hearted" in all this as you claim to be, AR, and your claim that your disproven assertions were "not serious" sounds a lot like sour grapes.

I called you an ESR-disciple not as a simple-minded smear-by association, but rather out of a suspicion that your advancement of easily discredited ideas might be in service of indirectly validating the etymological notions of ESR, which are slightly more difficult to debunk. Your insinuation that Adequacy is not a proper forum for serious intellectual inquiry, in addition to being laughable, lends some support to this suspicion. Then again, it's likely the petty insult was just more sour grapes.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Hmm (2.00 / 1) (#20)
by Anonymous Reader on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 02:47:34 PM PST
If this is an exercise in etymology, why not submit your theory to a journal? Even if you can reach more etymologists via adequacy (which does not appear so judging by the comments you have received), at least you would have an alternative audience.
Also, if you wish to claim that your derivation is the true one, you should refute all existing derivations, not just ones posted on adequacy. Perhaps you will do this in future articles?
Have you presented your theory to ESR, and if so, what are his thoughts on it?
Perhaps the arena of a neutral etymological journal would be a suitable sparring ground among you, ESR, and any other disputants? Before you rush to the defence of the neutrality of adequacy, adequacy is your home turf, so you should avoid even the appearance of non-neutrality.
I look forward to your serious response to the above questions.

Now you're just whining. (5.00 / 1) (#21)
by RobotSlave on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 04:25:32 PM PST
I see you've abandoned all pretense of arguing the subject at hand, which I will take as an admission of defeat.

Your bleating about "journals" is nothing more than an appeal to authority. Having failed to discredit my theory in any substantive way, you whine about the fact that it has been published at Adequacy, rather than in some unnamed "journal."

And it looks as though my suspicions were correct-- you seem to be under the impression that ESR's "thoughts" on my article would discredit it in a way presumably related to his "authority" on the matter. Does ESR publish his ideas in academic journals? Of course not. He publishes them on his "home turf," his own web-site, and does not so much as provide a forum for comment.

I've challenged all proposed derivations that I'm aware of, not just ones posted on Adequacy. I've refuted the ones that are clearly at odds with history, such as your own. Others are still possible, of course, but, I feel, much less likely than the golf explanation.

I have published at Adequacy not because I fear academic peer review (in fact, I would welcome it), but because my intended audience is not the philological community, but rather the better-educated segment of the internet-using community, which has been laboring under a set of lexicographical propaganda perpetuated by computers-zealots, one piece of which is a whitewashed and incomplete history of the word "hacker."

This is hardly the first time a theory has been published outside the academic press, and choice of publisher, despite your desperate insinuations, does nothing to discredit the published idea.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Kindly SHUT THE HELL UP, GEEK! (none / 0) (#7)
by KingAzzy on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 12:08:22 PM PST
Why must these stupid articles about "Hacking" keep being posted? Surely the creative tubes are not running THAT dry. Please stop this immediately or I will be forced to cancel your account.

Try to pay attention, Ritalin Boy. (none / 0) (#9)
by RobotSlave on Fri Jun 14th, 2002 at 02:10:42 PM PST
The article is not about hacking. In fact, it says very little about computer crime at all. If you stop jumping up and down and racing around the sofa for a minute, you'll see that the article is about etymology.

Delete my account if you must, God-Boy. Until you do, I think I'll make a game of deleting your comments just to prove a point.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Re: Amateur Golf and the Computer Criminal (none / 0) (#12)
by jbryce on Sat Jun 15th, 2002 at 09:11:17 AM PST
A very interesting article.

In computer terms, what hacker originally meant was someone who discovered new things by constantly trying out different things at random until they found something that worked, as opposed to following structured design methodology. This is much the same as the hacker on the golf course which the article refers to.

In the criminal sense, people would try out lots of different ways of breaking into a computer, until they found a way that worked. In that sense, "cracking" is a form of "hacking", and crackers are a subset of the hackers.

"Hackers" who do not fall into the "cracker" group get upset at being associated with them, though to call "crackers" "hackers" is strictly correct, but a slightly incomplete description.

In reality. (5.00 / 1) (#16)
by tkatchev on Sat Jun 15th, 2002 at 11:47:52 PM PST
In reality, the word "hacker" originally denoted cheap carpenters who made furniture with axes. Back in the olden days before mass-production axe-made furniture was the only furniture some poor people could afford.

In the industrial age, by analogy, the word "hacker" came to mean any uncreative, uncouth and hurried artisan. In particular, pulp fiction writers and g**k computer "programmers".

Peace and much love...

Ah, that old chestnut. (none / 0) (#22)
by RobotSlave on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 04:59:09 PM PST
This, of course, is the derivation offered by the Jargon File, first circulated in 1975.

It's a somewhat plausible explanation, as it conjures up a particularly American mythos, that of the Frontier. The problem with it, as with the hired-carriage-horse explanation, is that the usage was a little-known historical curiosity by the time technology-enthusiasts adopted the word.

Keep in mind that this furniture-making described as "hacking" took place not only in the absence of mass production and machine tools, but in the absence of such basic tools as hand saws, nails, hand drills, and the like. The era in which lack of such tools was widespread in the United States ended at least a hundred years before technology-enthusiasts started using the word.

Golf, on the other hand, was the subject of small talk everywhere.

Why, then, does the Jargon File give its peculiar derivation? The answer is obvious to any student of American cultural history (yes, yes, I know that phrase sounds hilarious to many Europeans, but there is nonetheless a reality to be described here).

During the rise of the American Counterculture of the 60s, Computers-enthusiasts identified strongly with the new contrarian spirit and rejection of the established social order. Golf, however, was emblematic of the old, "square" society (until the game was rehabilitated at the hands of the film Caddyshack in 1980) and computers-enthusiasts would have eagerly suppressed any prior association with the game.

The contrived primitive-woodworking explanation for the word "hacker," with its overtones of a hippie-like "return to nature," served this social need quite neatly, and eventually found its way into the Jargon File.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

It must feel really gratifying... (none / 0) (#30)
by tkatchev on Mon Jun 17th, 2002 at 08:25:49 PM PST be so totally in love with yourself, no?

Peace and much love...

Tell me then, mishka... (none / 0) (#31)
by RobotSlave on Tue Jun 18th, 2002 at 01:50:03 AM PST
do you not love yourself?

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Close, but no cigar (none / 0) (#23)
by Anonymous Reader on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 07:24:44 PM PST
Your drawing a connection between a sport (golf) and technology is on the right track, but you have chosen the wrong sport. The correct sport is chess.
Chess is a thinking man's game, just as technological tinkering is a thinking man's pastime.
One can imagine engineers often playing a friendly game of chess during their lunch breaks. And of course, there are chess hackers just as there are golf hackers.
If you want to draw a connection with computers:
"Programming is an art form like chess." - Alex Pentland
Golf has no particular connection with technologists, and isn't as cerebral as chess. Your appeal to the general popularity of golf does not necessarily translate to the popularity of that sport with a particular group of people.
P.S. - Your statement:
"I've challenged all proposed derivations that I'm aware of."
is all well and good, but your lack of specifics gives us no basis on which to judge the depth of your analysis.
If your argument is that both you and ESR are vague, I'll concede that.

You're a really sore loser, aren't you? (none / 0) (#24)
by RobotSlave on Sun Jun 16th, 2002 at 09:18:15 PM PST
Now, as soon as you can show us all some evidence that chess players referred to each other as "hackers" before technology-enthusiasts did, we can consider your claim. Until then, it has no basis whatsoever in historical fact.

I don't think my theory, or any of my challenges of other notions, lacks specifics. Far from it. I've provided a carefully considered and historicly defensible rationale in every case. And it really bothers you, doesn't it?

It looks to me as if you're used to throwing down a half-baked objection, backing it up with appeals to authority and somewhat obscure quotes, and then watching your opponent flounder. The fact that it isn't working this time is really getting on your nerves, isn't it?

Go home, and maybe come back when you're a little bit taller. You ain't got game, and refusing to leave the court when you've been beat is just making you look bad.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Nice try (none / 0) (#25)
by Anonymous Reader on Mon Jun 17th, 2002 at 08:19:22 AM PST
But this topic is about your theory, which you must be prepared to defend against all other possibilities. The onus isn't on me to prove that chess players referred to each other as hackers before technology enthusiasts.
Rather the onus is on you to definitively prove that the use of hacker in golf historically precedes the use of hacker in chess.
Don't expect others to do your research for you.
I'm not promoting a chess-related theory, just pointing out that you haven't considered all possibilities.
This isn't a battle between you and other people to see who can "win" (although this may be how you view it), it's a defence of a theory against alternate explanations.
I did not and do not have any interest in "winning" an argument with you. Rather I am interested in seeing if you can promote your theory as the most plausible one in the interest of clearing up this etymology.

Don't be stupid. (none / 0) (#28)
by RobotSlave on Mon Jun 17th, 2002 at 02:12:49 PM PST
Under the new rules you are trying to advance, I have to prove that "hacker" wasn't given to technology enthusiasts by aliens, a snake, the Russians, Henry Luce, or the 1950 US World Cup Football team.

Grow up.

I'm afraid that citing a web page (which can not be more than eight years old) that describes a player in a 1910 match as a "hacker" does not a historical fixture make. (I would also draw your attention to the fact that the reference, which appears in a simile, seems to be an allusion to golf rather than the use of a term particular to chess).

I've done the research. You haven't, and if you do, you'll be drawn to the same conclusions I've reached.

This is getting boring. You've used up all the courtesy I was willing to extend, and the time has come to end this little discussion. You Have Lost.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

What are you saying? (none / 0) (#26)
by gzt on Mon Jun 17th, 2002 at 09:48:01 AM PST
I'm lost. I don't understand the relation between the argument in the article and your argument.

At first glance there seems to be a relation, but there isn't. RobotSlave draws a relation between the use of the golf term 'hacker' and the use of the computer term 'hacker'. You say technology people like chess more.

This would be fine and dandy if 'hacker' were a chess term, too. But you're not making that argument. And I've never* seen the term 'hacker' applied in chess. And I've read a lot about chess. And I've been called just about every (English) chess insult.


Chess hacker (none / 0) (#27)
by Anonymous Reader on Mon Jun 17th, 2002 at 11:12:13 AM PST
Hi, gzt! Consider yourself lucky that you've never been called a chess hacker.
There's a generic definition of hacker (see as:
"A person who is inexperienced or unskilled at a particular activity."
For a particular instance where a chess player is referred to as a hacker, go to google and enter:
chess hacker Lasker
as search terms. Part way down the page you'll find an item titled "Lasker" at where one of the players in a 1910 match is described as playing like a "hacker".
As for the exact time line when hacker first was used in either golf or chess, I think that this won't be resolved unless one does an exhaustive search through the literature (not necessarily the internet).
I have no personal stake in this search, and would encourage interested adequacy readers to track this down.
I bear no animosity towards robotslave.

"Hacker" has its roots in "Hackey S (none / 0) (#33)
by Anonymous Reader on Wed Jun 26th, 2002 at 10:42:33 PM PST
The term "hacker" has its origins in an old game called "hackey sack" which, even now, still lingers in some parts of the world. The game is played by kicking a small cotton filled pouch back and forth between the players, and trying to avoid letting it touch the ground. The analogy to trespass on electronic networks is fairly obvious.

Nonsense. (none / 0) (#34)
by RobotSlave on Thu Jun 27th, 2002 at 12:43:13 AM PST
The modern game of Hacky Sack™ (note spelling and trademark) was invented in 1972, together with the eponymous piece of equipment. No similar game was known under any variant of "hack" prior to 1972, at which time the word "hakcer" had already passed from golf to technology to computers to all facets of nerd existence.

© 2002, RobotSlave. You may not reproduce this material, in whole or in part, without written permission of the owner.

Hacker with a Golf (none / 0) (#35)
by Anonymous Reader on Mon Jul 8th, 2002 at 04:54:46 AM PST
And if I drive a Golf, does it make me a hacker too? ;)

- Voice of Ambience -


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