Enquiring (and even inquiring) minds want to know: what the heck is a hack, anyway?
In response to numerous queries on that very subject (none, actually), I’ve been hacking my way through the undergrowth of lexicography trying to decode a term the internet seems to assume all of us understand intuitively.
Surprisingly, the dots between traditional and modern usages occasionally connect in some interesting ways.
Anyone who has ever wielded an axe, a machete, or a steak knife knows what it’s like to hack away at something such as a tree, a shrub, or a particularly stubborn piece of beef.
It’s an easy leap from there to how a stealthy hacker hacks into someone else’s computer system. Resistance, it seems, is often futile.
Those of us who rank amongst the rankest of amateur participants in the ancient and honourable pastime of golf are accustomed to hacking around the back nine with equal futility.
The medically-inclined (including those with a hypochondriac’s flair for melodrama) know how it feels to awaken at 2 a.m. to hack up our boots with a dry, hacking cough.
If we’ve done a bit in jail, we refer to guards as hacks (otherwise known as “bulls,” “screws,” or other terms of endearment).
After enough time under lock and key – or locked into a dead-end job – we may well complain we just can’t hack it any more.
Anyone who has served in the navy may have done the occasional stretch under hack (confined to quarters) for some real or imagined indiscretion.
In equestrian circles, a hack can be a light, gentle saddle horse. Extend that image slightly and a hack becomes a horse put out for public hire, transporting customers in a conveyance called a hackney.
These days, you’ll probably hire a horseless carriage called a taxi, still colloquially known as a hack in places like New York City.
How one gets from such a vehicle to the word hackneyed to denote a trite or clichéd turn of phrase remains shrouded in mystery.
On the theory that it takes one to know one, however, I readily admit that hack writers – available for hire, with no guarantee of quality – often resort to hackneyed phrases to fill the aching void (don’t all voids ache?) in our paid-by-the-inch masterworks.
Which leads indirectly to the modern usage of the word hack, as in “37 Life Hacks You Need to Know” or “16 Cooking Hacks to Re-use Banana Skins.”
Theoretically, it refers to a strategy or technique that lets you do things more efficiently: an updated equivalent of “Heloise’s Top Household Hints for Cleaning with Vinegar.”
Hack your way through any one of those lists, though, and chances are you’ll find nothing but a useless collection of factoids couched in hackneyed phrases, whose real purpose is to let advertisers hack into your social media profile to sell you something you neither want nor need.
Personally, I can’t hack it anymore. I’d rather hack up a hairball than hack my way through reams of deceptive clickbait looking for ways to make life better.
Hmmm. I wonder what “meme” means.