So there was this hack hacker who was hacking away while hacking some bricks – a guy’s gotta earn a living; he also drove a hack – when some guy come up on a hack with a hack-hawk and asked, “Hey, can you hack a hack with that hack?” and pointed to the hacker’s hack. “Don’t you know the hack for that?” said the hacker. “You put the hacks in before it freezes.” He started hacking and hacking away again. The guy on the hack was pretty hacked off. “Too late for that, now, isn’t it? Look, if you can’t hack it, can I borrow your hack?” The hacker stopped hacking and hacking and said, “Go hack yourself.” So the guy set his hack-hawk on him.

So there was this second-rate computer hacker who was coughing nastily while putting some bricks in a drying frame – a guy’s gotta earn a living; he also drove a cab – when some guy came up on a hired horse with a young hawk in training and asked, “Hey, can you cut me a curling foothold with that mattock?” and pointed to the hacker’s mattock. “Don’t you know the shortcut for that?” said the hacker. “You put the footholds in before it freezes.” He started racking the bricks and coughing away again. The guy was pretty annoyed. “Too late for that, now, isn’t it? Look, if you’re not up to doing it, can I borrow your mattock?” The hacker stopped coughing and racking bricks and said, “Go hack yourself.” So the guy set his young hawk in training on him.

Was that a piece of hack writing, or what? I think the word hack was getting pretty hacked – meaning hackneyed – by the end. But it’s just a fact that there’s a lot of hack out there. It’s a short, convenient word, easy enough to say – unless your native tongue doesn’t have the sound /h/, of course, and allowing for considerable variation in the realization of the vowel, depending on accent. It nonetheless has one letter more than it has sounds; in English (unlike in Dutch, Danish, or Swedish), hak would look like bare hack-work, and frankly foreign. And of course hac would just be wrong – well, it’s a Latin word meaning, roughly, “over here”, but that’s entirely separate – partly because it wouldn’t look quite right but in the main (for my tastes) because it would lose that nice look of the h getting hacked into a k.

Almost all of the various senses of hack above come from two sources. One is a Germanic root, which has shown up in cognates in the various Germanic languages (mainly spelled hack, hak, hacke, and hakke), and it has to do with hewing and striking and implements for so doing. The other – relating mainly to the for-hire and transport senses – is as a shortening of hackney, which some trace to the British place name Hackney (“Haca’s Isle” or “Hook Isle”) but others (including the OED) trace to Romance sources such as French haquenée and Italian acchinea, “ambling nag”. There are also a couple of other hacks in there, including the drying rack for bricks and the table on which meat is set out for a young hawk in training (whence hack-hawk), which appear to have different origins, though etymologists can’t quite hack the sources of those.

Hack certainly has lots of echos (especially if you do it in a canyon). Many of them come from other meanings of hack. There are also all the other words that rhyme with it, plus words such as hap and hat, and hick, heck, huck, hock, hook, hike, hake, hark, hork… /h…k/ is a very useful frame for those linguistic bricks, phonemes. And it has an undeniable flavour that colours, to some extent, every usage it has, with its shortness and sharpness, starting with a quick chest pulse and staying stuck at the back of the tongue (well, except for the vowel – hock would be all back, all the time).

I am also, just incidentally, put in mind of Hakka, which is a dialect of Chinese and an associated ethnic group within the Han Chinese. That’s not pronounced like “hacka”, though – the a is as in father. And while you might be led to expect a dialect with a sort of hacking sound and rhythm, Hakka is actually pretty even and smooth overall (I have a couple of friends who speak it).

And I suppose it makes me think of my last name, if I drop the rbe from the middle. But I don’t expect anyone else to make that association!

Thanks to Doug Linzey for suggesting hack.

8 responses to “hack

  1. Well, I guess you know a hawk from a hacksaw!
    Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act II, Scene II, line 272
    and Cervantes’ Don Quixote, and also a band from Albuquerue

  2. You have friends who speak Hakka? I have friends who have danced it.

  3. Or, for a less commercialized version, in a Maori studies class,

  4. By ‘computer hacker’, I hope you don’t mean a person who commits cyber-crimes. Programmers hate that usage, however mainstream it may be.

    To programmers (and others), a ‘hacker’ is a person who gets into a system (not even necessarily a computer system) and learns to understand it well enough to be able to make her own adjustments to it. There are mind hacks, life hacks and plenty of others.

    In programmer-speak, a security is a “cracker”.

    See Wikipedia’s entry for more (may ever have wanted to know! 🙂 ).

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