Separated by a Common Language


I was reminded once again this morning of how the language of programmers is not the language of everyone else (“doh”, I hear you say). For most of my adult life I lived in a society of software developers, and the linguistic patterns developed are hard to shake (even if, contrary to fact, I was trying to shake them). There are some phrases that just elicit blank stares from my non-programming associates. I’ve come to realize that “paging in the context” is not something most people rightly understand, nor do I expect them to understand where /dev/null is (or, more importantly, isn’t).

What is more distressing is the terms that are understood, but in a different way, by the general community. In particular, I find that I often get worried looks from my colleagues when I talk about doing some hacking, or being a hacker. Those not in the programming community understand hacking to be the act of breaking into a computer system. But the older meaning, still in use by many in the programming world, is much different. On that meaning, “hacking” is the activity of writing code that is particularly clever, elegant, or that solves a particularly difficult problem, and hackers are those who have shown a consistent ability to write such code.

In the programming culture, being called a hacker is an honorific. This is the sense of the term that Steven Levy wrote about in his book Hackers (subtitled Heroes of the Computer Revolution). To be called a hacker in this sense is a considerable honor, and (at least in the old days) was not a title that you could bestow upon yourself, but one that had to be bestowed on you by someone who was himself (or herself) a hacker.  A kind of hacker writes good, clean, understandable code that runs well and does the job at hand. It is a term denoting craftsmanship and art.

But now the term “hacker” is being used to denote those who break into networked systems. There is a connection between the old meaning and the new– some of the early (code) hackers believed that they should be able to look at any code to try to make it better, and would use their (considerable) skills to break into computers that those who were not hackers would try to close off to them. But the goal, in those cases, was always to make the underlying code better, not to steal information or shut a system down. That is a new phenomenon, or at least newer than the term. I’m afraid that the press has made this meaning of the term the dominant one, and trying to change it is a battle already lost.

But it does lead to confusion. When I tell people that I am going to do some hacking, I get odd looks, and have to explain to them that I just mean writing some code. Even worse, when people ask me if I am a hacker, I have to ask what they mean by that. On one sense of the term, I am proud to say that I am (or at least once was). But in the more popular sense of the term, I am not (by choice, rather than because I can’t).

RIP Steve Jobs
My Life as a Technology Canary


  1. Gary McGath

    October 20, 2011 @ 1:37 pm


    Clean code isn’t something I associate with the original meaning of “hacking.” It’s more getting something done quickly that works. I might say something like “I came up with a hack to fix that problem, but now it really needs to be cleaned up.”

  2. Jim Waldo

    October 20, 2011 @ 5:43 pm


    Ah, ain’t language wonderful– it is true that ugly, rapidly done code that is known to be inelegant and done in a hurry is often called a hack. But a coder who is considered a hacker would never write code that is a hack (unless absolutely necessary).

    And we wonder why those who aren’t programmers get confused.

  3. ~a

    December 9, 2011 @ 1:55 am


    Hi Jim,

    Just a nudge hoping you’ll post again soon!

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