May 25, 2005

Joy and contempt

A few weeks ago, Liz Ditz sent in a link to an article on Equestrian vocabulary from the (London) Times. The part of the article that caught my attention was its discussion of how the word hack has "moved from contempt to joy".

Hack is shortened from Hackney, which was a horse that you could hire. Therefore it was not up to much else, like the car you hire at the airport. So a hack was a sorry drudge, a horse from which not too much was expected. It was used figuratively and came to mean a literary drudge, a penny-a-liner, a term used of journalists with amiable contempt, and by journalists of themselves with a kind of epic false modesty.

But the word has been reborn in the horsey life. A smart trainer at Newmarket will ride out on the Heath on his hack, which may be a sumptuous former racehorse. It has become a verb: riders hack out on their horses, riding for the straightforward pleasure of it. A hack is not the horse but an out-and-back journey on horseback. The word has moved from contempt to joy.

In the language at large, hack seems to have at least three different etymological sources, and a dozen areas of practical association, with a bewildering variety of emotional connotations. And it's ironic that horsey hack has moved from contempt to joy, since technological hack has moved in the opposite direction, from joy to contempt.

According to the OED, the three sources for modern English hack seem to be a word for a kind of horse; a word for cutting with heavy, irregular blows; and (more obscurely) a word for the racks used to make food available to cattle or to falcons.

Specifically, we have hackney defined as

A horse of middle size and quality, used for ordinary riding, as distinguished from a war-horse, a hunter, or a draught-horse; in early times often an ambling horse.

From an early date mention is found of hackneys hired out; hence the word came often to be taken as, A horse kept for hire.

with the etymology

[a. OF. haquenée fem. ‘an ambling horse or mare, especially for ladies to ride on’; cf. OSp. and Pg. facanea, Sp. hacanea, It. acchinea (Florio), chinea ‘a hackney or ambling nag’: see Diez, Scheler, etc. (In 1373 latinized in England as hakeneius: see Du Cange.)
  It is now agreed by French and Dutch scholars that MDu. hackeneie, hackeneye, Du. hakkenij, to which some have referred the French word, was merely adopted from the French, thus disposing of conjectures as to the derivation of the word from MDu. hacken to hoe. The French haquenée and its Romanic equivalents had probably some relationship with OF. haque, OSp. and Pg. faca, Sp. haca ‘a nag, a gelding, a hackney’ (Minsheu): but, although the word-group has engaged the most eminent etymologists, its ulterior derivation is still unknown.

After being shortened to hack, hackney underwent a sequence of extensions along the lines sketched in the Times.

Meanwhile, long ago in falconry, hack was a noun for

The board on which a hawk's meat is laid. Hence applied to the state of partial liberty in which eyas hawks are kept before being trained, not being allowed to prey for themselves. to fly, be at hack , to be in this state.

This is probably connected with another kind of food-availability hack:

A rack to hold fodder for cattle. to live at hack and manger, i.e. in plenty, ‘in clover’.

The OED suggests that at least the cattle-feeding version comes from hatch ( perhaps based on the design of traditional systems for controlling access to feed?):

[... another form of the words HATCH and HECK, having the consonant of the latter with the vowel of the former; cf. hetch, a variant of hatch. The other senses do not run quite parallel with those of hatch and heck, and it is possible that some of them are of different origin.]

For the commonest form of hack, the OED gives the gloss and etymology:

To cut with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion; to cut notches or nicks in; to mangle or mutilate by jagged cuts. In earlier use chiefly, To cut or chop up or into pieces, to chop off. Const. about, away, down, off, up.

[Early ME. hack-en, repr. OE. *haccian (whence tó-haccian to hack in pieces): Common WGer. *hakkôn: cf. OFris. to-hakia, MHG., MLG., MDu., G. hacken, mod.Du. hakken.] 

There are many extended senses that seem to connect to one or another of these sources, but others whose connections are more obscure.

For example, it's plausible that the expression hack off in the sense of "to annoy" is extended from hack in the sense "to cut with heavy blows":

I am getting really hacked off now with NTL email.
I wouldn't be so hacked off about it if I didn't love country music.
But here's what really hacks me off. WHAT REALLY HACKS ME OFF. When I give a plant every advantage and it DIES ANYWAY.

But it's less clear to me where the expression can't hack [something] in the sense "be unable to manage or tolerate" comes from:

It's not that I think Janeway can't hack it alone ...
You can't hack the tactics / Of a semi automatic full rap fanatic
If he couldn't hack the accent, why did he get the part?
Partway through the gig the bloody thing disintegrated in me fist 'cos the sellotape couldn't hack the sweaty heat.

When I was a kid, we used expressions like hacking around (and sometimes hacking off) to mean something like playing or fooling around. It had to be a directed activity -- dozing in the sun would not be hacking around, but building a dam in the creek would be -- and it also had to be fun and self-motivated, so mowing the lawn would definitely not be included. Of all the OED offerings for hack, the one about young falcons being "at hack", or cattle being "at hack and manger" seem closest to this, though the connection is far from exact. Our use certainly had no sense of chopping or cutting about it, though I guess there might have been some resonance of the "irregular or random" component that the OED attributes to hack-as-chop.

In the late 1960s, when I heard people at MIT talking about "the model railroad club hackers" or "hacking ITS" or "hacking TECO", I just assumed from context that this was the same sense of hacking as goal-directed play that I'd grown up with. This isn't exactly the sense of hacking as "an appropriate application of ingenuity" suggested by the Jargon File, but there's some sort of connection.

The black-hat hack senses "to gain unauthorized access to computer files" or "to break into a computer system by hacking" came later, as is well known. The activities denoted are roughly the same, but the connotation has changed from joyful play to devious threat.

This sort of situation, in which several different historical sources half-way merge into a highly polysemous collection of incompletely-differentiated words and phrases, seems to be commoner than one might think. Cases previously discussed here include diet and pole.

One last mysterious hack, from the OED:

The sense of hack in SHAKES. Merry W. II i. 52, ‘These knights will hack’, is doubtful. The senses, To be common or vulgar; to turn prostitute; to have to do with prostitutes; and ‘to become vile and vulgar’ (Johnson and Nares), have been suggested; but the history and chronology of this verb, and of the n. whence it is derived, appear to make these impossible.

[Update: the indefatigable Ben Zimmer reports that

Fred Shapiro on ADS-L uncovered a 1963 article in MIT's student paper, The Tech, which discusses the "hacking" of the Institute phone system. Even early on, the connotation was more "devious threat" than "joyful play".

1963 The Tech (MIT student newspaper) 20 Nov. 1 Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers, according to Prof. Carlton Tucker, administrator of the Institute phone system. ... The hackers have accomplished such things as tying up all the tie-lines between Harvard and MIT, or making long-distance calls by charging them to a local radar installation. One method involved connecting the PDP-1 computer to the phone system to search the lines until a dial tone, indicating an outside line, was found. ... Because of the "hacking," the majority of the MIT phones are "trapped."

I can see that the "administrator of the the Institute phone system" would see this as a threat or at least an annoyance, but from the perspective of a mid-1960s undergraduate, I'd have to say that this stuff sounds more playful than malicious. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 25, 2005 12:29 PM