The Grammarphobia Blog

Whatcha up to? Oh, just hacking.

Q: On Facebook, people frequently say things like “I hacked this account, he-he.” Does guessing someone’s password really count as hacking? I think hacking requires some degree of technical knowledge, no?

A: The verb “hack” in its computer sense is a very flexible word.

It can refer to someone with enough technical knowhow to steal Google’s source code as well as a Facebooker who guesses his friend’s password.

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) gives these four definitions of the verb “hack”:

1) “To alter (a computer program): hacked her text editor to read HTML.

2) “To gain access to (a computer file or network) illegally or without authorization: hacked the firm’s personnel database.

3) “To write or refine computer programs skillfully.”

4) “To use one’s skill in computer programming to gain illegal or unauthorized access to a file or network: hacked into the company’s intranet.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) adds this more flexible definition: “to write computer programs for enjoyment.”

And the Oxford English Dictionary’s entry for “hacking” includes this definition: “The use of a computer for the satisfaction it gives.” That’s about as flexible as you can get.

Finally, here’s a definition from the Free On-Line Dictionary of Computing: “To interact with a computer in a playful and exploratory rather than goal-directed way. ‘Whatcha up to?’ ‘Oh, just hacking.’ ”

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