18 September 2023

What Is A Hack

The answer, like the answer to so many questions, depends on how old you are. If you were born before the Flood, or even before the War (what Flood? what War? see what I mean?), a hack is a New York taxi cab. If you're a Boomer, a hack is an uninspired writer, for example, a journalist, who churns out derivative or formulaic drivel without inspiration, passion, or creativity. If you're a millennial, it's an illegal but brilliant incursion into the best guarded secrets of cyberspace. If you're Gen Z, apparently, a "hack" can be anything.

Because I was born before the Flood (okay, before the start of the Baby Boom), I remember the old game "coffeepot," in which you replaced any chosen word in a sentence with "coffeepot" and the other players had to guess from context what you were talking about. I also read Alice in Wonderland, in which Humpty Dumpty says, "There's glory for you!" He explains to Alice that when he says it, glory means, "there's a nice knock-down argument for you," because "when I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean."

If I thought that Gen Z were emulating Humpty Dumpty, I'd have no quarrel with them.

"The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "Which is to be master---that's all...They've a temper, some of them---particularly, verbs, they're the proudest---adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs---however, I can manage the whole lot!"

I doubt the Gen Zers who use "hack" to coffeepot language can explain what Humpty Dumpty means. I've seen a video of an "omelet hack" displayed on the wall of my local subway station. An article in the Harvard Crimson, of all places, referred to another online article about "life hacks every student should know" that led to articles on such important coffeepots as "hacks for DIY manicures, hacks to survive delays at the airport, and even hacks for what to do when you just can’t finish those last three pieces of sushi." Remember real language, when we used such terms as "life skills" and "recipes?" And when you didn't send your kids to Harvard to figure out what to do with the last three pieces of sushi? Oy gevalt.

If these kids think Chatbot is going to let them relax while they let it write their term papers and emails and still take over the world with their Harvard degrees and sublime sense of entitlement, they're deluding themselves. They're clearing the field for Chatbot and the more sophisticated AI that's sure to follow it to take over the world. And AI doesn't drink the water or breathe the air, so don't expect its goals to be the same as ours. It's not there yet by any means. I was reassured to see on a giant bus shelter a digital poster that claimed, "Montrealers are non-stop festivals!" It was lousy copywriting, and I understood why when I read the fine print: "AI-generated review of Montréal, based on thousands of visitor comments." AI will learn. Will human kids? Not if they lose the skills to hack language before time coffeepots out. There's glory for you!


  1. Sure got a kick out of your 'hack' explanation, Elizabeth! I'm latter half of baby boom, and for me, hack was to hack into something or somewhere you weren't supposed to be! I totally didn't get the new meaning at all, and wondered if whoever came up with it had any idea of the actual meaning of the word! Which just goes to show...that words change. For instance, I've never understood people saying "I lucked out" to mean something good. Surely, that's "lucked in"?

  2. Melodie, I'd say "lucked out" is an oxymoron, which is a whole different topic on which I bet SleuthSayers posts have already been written and another would surely be welcome.

  3. What's a coffee pot? :)

  4. Ah, American slang, an amazingly fluid thing. When did "sick" become slang for "great"? I have no idea.

  5. See, my first graders love it when we talk about multiple-meaning words like this...when they figure out that "fly" can be a noun, or a verb (or if you're a 90s kid like me, an adjective meaning "cute" or "attractive", haha), or that "rock" can mean a whole lot of different things. I get that "hack" is essentially used as a synonym for "shortcut" these days, but I swear it evolved from the idea of a computer hack, and I absolutely don't understand THAT progression. My mind actually goes straight to "hack" meaning "cough" when I think of the word...maybe we've spent too much time in the past few years with that kind of thing on our mind?
    (Eve, I know we were using "sick" to mean "super cool" when I was a kid...I grew up in the Caribbean so we were a little late with things, though!) --Ashley Bernier

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