Saturday, June 22, 2002

Computer-created words

THERE is no logic behind the selection of certain words as favorites by a language-user. Of course, developments in the world do contribute to the process of choosing certain favourite words, but so far, there are no clues to the puzzle of ‘why one word and not another?’ A much-bandied-about word of our times is hack. It’s not a new word, comes from the Old English haccian that meant to cut in pieces. It is quite common to use hack for any act of cutting something roughly. This leads to this word being used in the sense of kicking wildly in a game. It also created hack as a noun used in many senses: one, a rough blow, two, a rough notch, three, a tool for rough cutting. Hack also makes an appearance in the lexicon of slang where it is used as a phrase, ‘to hack it’, that is, to attempt, manage or accomplish.

With the computer came a whole family of computer-related words beginning with hack as a verb, meaning to gain unauthorised access to data in a computer. The person who performs such an act is a hack or hacker. Hacker has taken on many connotations with the passage of time.

Fiddling with words, again!
June 8, 2002
Fiddling with words
May 25, 2002
May 11, 2002
Words in twos
April 27, 2002
April 13, 2002
March 16, 2002
And the romance goes on...
March 2, 2002
Less etymology, more romance
February 16, 2002
Random tales"
February 2, 2002
History and meaning
January 19, 2002
Psychiatry and Greek
January 5, 2002

One, a person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. Two, a person who enjoys programming. Three, a person who is good at programming quickly. All these developments in meaning meant that hack would spill over to other professions too and this is exactly what happened. An expert or enthusiast of any kind came to be called a hacker; one could be a literature hacker, for example. This sense further evolved into the use of hacker to mean one who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. It came to be used in the negative sense to refer to a malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around.

As is the case when a word becomes a favorite, hack inspired other related words. When hacking became a threat to security, computer systems that were safe were called hacker-proof and an electronic hacker watch became necessary for those that were not. The special jargon of hacks came to be called hacker-speak. Computer games that involved combat and violence came to be called hack and slash games.

Footprint is another word immortalised by the computer. It was first used in the technical sense by a space scientist: a footprint is the landing area of an aircraft. In the early seventies a footprint was the ground area affected by the noise and pressure from an aircraft. The area of contact between a tire and the ground is also called the tire’s footprint. Perhaps this led to the use of footprint as the surface area taken up by the computer on a desk. Footprint is connected with hack too; footprint came to be used figuratively in the computer lexicon to mean a visible sign left in a file to show that it had been hacked into.


The sense-reference-meaning chain creates new worxds in every language. In Hindi, the word paatra is used for a character in a work or a person who is capable of receiving something. In Sanskrit, the language of origin, paatra is a utensil that carries water. The sense of something that is capable of holding something was transferred to a person who holds a place or possesses certain qualities.