A few days ago, one of my high school friends posted a BuzzFeed article: “36 Life Hacks Every College Student Should Know.” After skipping the tips for readable powerpoint fonts and going right to the section about making snack bowls from chip bags and cooking scrambled eggs in coffee mugs, I found myself clicking through all sorts of suggested articles. There were 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 (for the record, you put each piece in its own disposable soy sauce container). But in all of those articles, there wasn’t a single mention of computers or even technology—let alone a mention of cutting firewood or chopping things into pieces.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “hack” was first used around the year 1300, meaning “to cut with heavy blows in an irregular or random fashion…to cut or chop into pieces.” For the next several hundred years, the word didn’t evolve much, or shift in meaning, until 1963 when The Tech (MIT’s student newspaper) assigned the word “hacker”—perhaps a derivation of the WWII term “code cracker”—as a moniker for an unknown group of people that had been using computers to tie up the university phone lines. Although “hack” was not intended to have a negative connotation, it has often referred to those who used technology for malicious purposes; specifically, by gaining unauthorized access to certain computers and online information. However this wasn’t always the case, or the original intention of the word.
“Hacking has a storied history: it connotes the joy of tinkering, of exploration, of learning,” computer science professor Jonathan L. Zittrain wrote in an email. “Confusingly, it’s also come to mean breaking into restricted systems.”
The dual meaning of “hack” soon became a source of conflict within the technical community. While mainstream media uses the word in relation to cyber crimes and information leaks, computer enthusiast focus on the more positive definition. “Ideally negative hacking would earn its own word,” Zittrain said. “But in the meantime, we’re stuck with having to glean from context what someone means when it’s said.”
Although it’s easy to see how “hack” relates to both cyberattacks and computer enthusiasm, it’s a little more difficult to understand how the word came to be used in relation to improvised sushi containers. According to Wikipedia, “life hacks” were first used in the 1980s, and were a series of tricks used to deal with information organization and data overload in technological systems. But it wasn’t until 2004, when technology journalist Danny O’Brien used the term to describe shortcuts taken by IT professionals, that life hacks found widespread use in the non-technological lexicon. “Lifehack” was added to the Oxford Online dictionary in 2011, an informal noun meaning “a strategy adopted in order to manage one’s time in a more efficient way.”
So after efficiently scrolling through countless articles, I learned how to fix a broken nail with a teabag, find shorter lines at the airport, and fit all of my winter sweaters in a single drawer. And although these hacks take place in the real world they necessitate cleverness and innovation just like cyber hacks, just like chopping wood.