Lost in the Machine: Hacker Language

By Jimmy Maher

All professions tend to develop a lingo of their own which can be hopelessly inscrutable to outsiders. In this, those who make their living through computers are unexceptional. What is unusual, however, is the way that to its most dedicated practitioners the practice of programming and modifying computers becomes more than an avocation. For hackers, as they call themselves, computing is a lifestyle, complete with a culture and a value system that diverges considerably from that of mainstream society. Like all counter-cultures, hackers have developed a language all their own, one that might have its origins in the technical parlance of computers but that has been extended to embrace virtually all areas of life. One will seldom find a plumber who uses plumbing as a metaphor for life; with hackers, however, this is commonplace. As computers have become increasingly important parts of our lives over the last two decades, hacker language has more and more filtered into the mainstream. It is often misused there, however. Even the word "hacker" has been invested with a new, negative meaning it does not hold within computing circles. In this essay I will briefly examine hacking’s unique lingo, then look at its sometimes problematic co-opting by mainstream culture. Finally, I will touch upon a recent movement that, while superficially similar to the hackers of old, actually shares little of their language or their values.

As just mentioned, hackers are no different from any other profession in having developed a unique language to refer to the technical aspects of their work. Computing language is, for instance, awash in a sea of acronyms, such as IPL (Initial Program Load), RAM (Random Access Memory), BIOS (Basic Input/Output System), etc. If we dig a bit deeper even into these purely technical terms, however, we find a level of imagination and linguistic playfulness that hackers are seldom credited for by mainstream society. The frequently used term "boot," as in to "boot up a computer," is a good example. The concept behind the term is that a newly powered-on computer has no software running and is effectively useless until it "pulls itself up by its bootstraps." Another example comes from the world of networking, where hackers frequently speak of computers needing to "handshake." As my reader has probably already gathered, this simply refers to two computers greeting one another and establishing a channel for further communication. Far from the inscrutable techno-babble which hackers are often accused of indulging in, the term is straightforward, humanistic, and also clever and just a bit fun. Indeed, hackers love to play with words and letters. Take the case of the programming language C. It was developed as an improved version of an earlier language known as B. Its developer thus simply chose the next letter in the alphabet to reflect its newer, more capable status. C would later be superseded by another language which was entitled C++. To increment a number or letter by one in C, the programmer enters a ++. Thus C, being incremented by one itself, becomes C++. This sort of playfulness is very common in hacker culture and hacker language, as countless further examples could attest.

For its most successful adherents, hacking is a lifestyle and a value system in addition to being a profession. It is thus not surprising that many terms with their origins in technical matters spill over into the typical hacker’s life away from the keyboard. In polite company, hackers frequently refer to this or that situation as being "fscked up." It is of course obvious to even the non-technician what the word "fsck" is standing in for here, but there is more going on than a simple substitution of one letter for another. "Fsck" is actually a command on Unix operating systems that attempts to rebuild a damaged filesystem. If one is forced to use it, one is by definition having a bad day, a "fscked up" day. A more extreme, and to the outsider completely inscrutable, example of this phenomenon comes from Lisp, a programming language for artificial intelligence systems. In Lisp, a programmer indicates to the computer that a phrase is intended to be a question for it by appending the letter "p" to the end. This syntax has been extended into real-life interactions by many Lisp programmers. One may ask another, for instance, "Food-p?" In conventional English, this means, "Would you like to break for lunch?"

Other words in hackerdom do not have their origins in technical matters at all, but nevertheless posses that certain, indefinable hacker spirit. They perhaps most of all reflect the hacker value system. These terms have been borrowed from a wide variety of sources, something that might come as a surprise to those who think of hackers as bound to and aware of only the machines they work on. The popular term "foobar," for instance, has its origins in the U.S. Army, where "FUBAR" is an acronym for "Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition." "Foo" is frequently used by hackers as a nonsense, placeholder variable or filename. Some clever soul substituted "foo" into "FUBAR," and hackers had a new term all their one, albeit with the same meaning as before. A hacker might say, "My program doesn’t work anymore! It’s totally foobared!" Another example is the term "kluge," which probably has its origins in the German word "klug," meaning "clever." It is used to refer to a solution to a problem which is not elegant or possibly even logical, but which just works well enough for the time being. "Kluge" is a value-laden term. While every programmer must employ the occasional kluge to get a job done or meet a deadline, they are not something to be proud of. Hackers value elegant, understandable logic and simplicity, the very antithesis of a kluge. Thus the term is generally used apologetically, even with shame, as in, "This part of the program is a real kluge, but the boss was waiting and I just didn’t have time to write it properly." The opposite of a kluge is a hack, which The New Hacker’s Dictionary defines as, "An incredibly good, and perhaps time-consuming, piece of work that produces exactly what is needed" (189). A hack is the ideal to be striven for, and someone who is a true hacker is worthy of the upmost respect. The term probably arose from the image of the intrepid programmer hacking his way through the wilderness of the machine like a jungle explorer of old, bringing order to the chaos.

Like many insular cultures, hackerdom has had a somewhat rock relationship with mainstream media and society. Compounding the problem is the fact that hackers are not generally terribly interested in explaining themselves or their culture to outsiders, which leads to frequent accusations of elitist snobbery, accusations which it must be admitted have a certain fidelity, for hackers do not suffer fools gladly, and are not terribly interested in instructing those who cannot keep up. Hackers were quickly labeled with a variety of pejorative terms, such as "nerds," "geeks," and the less popular but much more entertaining "propeller heads." Those so labeled generally did not waste much time being offended, however. In fact, many began to take these terms as a badge of pride, a mark of their difference from the mediocre mainstream. In a process not dissimilar to the co-opting of the term "nigger" by black hip-hop culture, many hackers eventually began referring to themselves by these terms. The result is that these expressions have been largely relieved of their initial hurtful connotations, and have become rather harmless. This process has undoubtedly been helped by the fact that the average American today needs to a know a geek or two just to keep her computer running. The world of the hacker is thus not so foreign or arcane as it once was. There is now even a computer consulting service which proudly calls itself "Geeks on Call."

More problematic for hackers is the mainstream’s insistence on twisting the very word by which they refer to themselves into something nefarious. As my reader is surely aware, the term "hacker" is today used by the news media to refer to those who break in to computer systems, steal credit card numbers and identities, and commit other similar crimes. This irks traditional hacker culture to no end, for the values of this criminal segment of computer users, which hackers refer to as "crackers," are anathema to that of old-school hackers. There is in fact a decidedly moralistic element to hacking, a belief that everyone should cooperate and that software and protocols should be open. Many early hackerish operating systems had no security whatsoever, not even passwords, out of this sense of idealism. Crackers are thus treated as beneath contempt by hackers, not only because of the joy they take in disruption but because their technical skills are shoddy in the extreme. Most crackers are not really capable of writing or creating anything. They merely make crude modifications to the code of real hackers, and thus are often derisively referred to as "script kiddies." Hacking is all about creating something new and elegant where nothing was before; cracking is only about destruction. It is in fact its own subculture, separate and distinct from that of hackers, and with a lingo all its own, as exemplified by terms like "warez," used to refer to pirated versions of commercial software, that are unknown in traditional hacker-dom. Many cracker terms tend to follow this trend, substituting "z" for "s" and such to create a sort of faux-streetsmart lingo. Most crackers are under twenty-five and not terribly mature even for their tender ages, so perhaps this is unsurprising.

In light of all this, one can perhaps understand why the constant conflating of "hacking" for "cracking" by the mainstream irks hackers to no end. Many send barrages of letters off to those newspapers and television networks who are guilty of such behavior, but their efforts are generally of no avail. The mainstream has decided, out ignorance rather than mal-intent, to make of hacking its own, negative term, and there seems to be little that can be done about it.

Most computer users, even most computer professionals, are not hackers. Many work in careers as programmers or other specialists, yet never embrace the ideals of hackerdom. Hackers are a special, elite minority who abide by a code of ethics and behavior that often prevents them from working for major corporations such as Microsoft. They believe that information and software should be free; that operating systems should be open, well-documented, and modifiable by anyone; and that computers should be programmed for the joy of it, not for the money. These values make them an isolated group in our world of software patents, the increasingly commercialized Internet, and the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Still, the infrastructures they have built have brought a plethora of gifts to the mainstream, and, ironically, lined many a cutthroat entrepreneur’s pocket. The very protocols on which the Internet is built, and its founding principal of the free and open exchange of information, are hacker constructs. This sub-culture may initially seem impenetrable to outsiders, but an examination of their language may in fact be one pathway to understanding the rich storehouse of values and lore assembled there.


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