Hackers Want Cambridge Dictionary To Change Their Definition

Maybe it’s the silly season of high summer, or maybe a PR bunny at a cybersecurity company has simply hit the jackpot with a story syndicated by the Press Association, but the non-tech media has been earnestly talking about a call upon the Cambridge Dictionary to remove the word “illegal” from their definition of “Hacker”. The weighty tome from the famous British university lists the word as either “a person who is skilled in the use of computer systems, often one who illegally obtains access to private computer systems:” in its learners dictionary, or as “someone who illegally uses a computer to access information stored on another computer system or to spread a computer virus” in its academic dictionary. The cybersecurity company in question argues that hackers in fact do a lot of the work that improves cybersecurity and are thus all-round Good Eggs, and not those nasty computer crooks we hear so much about in the papers.

We’re right behind them on the point about illegality, because while there are those who adopt the hacker sobriquet that wear hats of all colours including black, for us being a hacker is about having the curiosity to tinker with anything presented to us, whatever it is. It’s a word that originated among railway modelers (Internet Archived version), hardly a community that’s known for its criminal tendencies!

Popular Usage Informs Definition

It is however futile to attempt to influence a dictionary in this way. There are two types of lexicography: Prescriptive and Descriptive. With prescriptive lexicography, the dictionary instructs what something must mean or how it should be spelled, while descriptive lexicography tells you how something is used in the real world based on extensive usage research. Thus venerable lexicographers such as Samuel Johnson or Noah Webster told you a particular way to use your English, while their modern equivalents lead you towards current usage with plenty of examples.

It’s something that can cause significant discontent among some dictionary users as we can see from our consternation over the word “hacker”. The administration team at all dictionaries will be familiar with the constant stream of letters of complaint from people outraged that their pet piece of language is not reflected in the volume they regard as an authority. But while modern lexicographers admit that they sometimes walk in an uneasy balance between the two approaches, they are at heart scientists with a rigorous approach to evidence-based research, and are very proud of their efforts.

Big Data Makes for Big Dictionaries

Lexicographic research comes from huge corpora, databases of tens or hundreds of millions of words of written English, from which they can extract the subtlest of language trends to see where a word is going. These can be interesting and engrossing tools for anyone, not just linguists, so we’d urge you to have a go for yourself.

Sadly for us the corpus evidence shows the definition for “Hacker” has very firmly trended toward the tabloid newspaper meaning that associates cybercriminality. All we can do is subvert that trend by doing our best to own the word as we would prefer it to be used, re-appropriating it. At least the other weighty tome from a well-known British university has a secondary sense that we do agree with: An enthusiastic and skilful computer programmer or user“.

Disclosure: Jenny List used to work in the dictionary business.

83 thoughts on “Hackers Want Cambridge Dictionary To Change Their Definition

    1. Totally. It is OED versus Webster. If you want to understand writing from the past, don’t use Webster. I have no idea why amateur scientists and hobbyist and enthusiasts (and spare time professionals) ever wanted to call themselves hackers (or worse, makers, which I thought was a worm in Dune).

      1. Because before the mid-1980s, ‘hacker’ was a term meaning you had mastered something. ‘Hacks’ were unusual solutions to problems. Unfortunately, movies and then the media took the words and misapplied them. People who weren’t part of the various communities accepted those usages and we were outnumbered.

        If you want to do the same to ‘maker’ you will have to pry it from my cold, dead hands…

        1. I never heard it before in any sense like that. Only for someone who didn’t know how to use an axe and hacked their way through a log and hacked at something with the totally wrong tool or in ignorance of the damage they were doing. A term of derision then, and when it came to be used to describe information anarchists. Basically, people who wanted the efforts of a few to be freely shared with them and had developed a set of loose axioms that allowed them to feel ethically superior to the less psychotic.

          1. It is the exact same meaning of the word. It just looks differently from the perspective of people who insist on learning a conventional system and then following it, compared to people who value creative solutions. They both have use cases where they have an advantage, but they might not respect each other very much.

        2. Hack
          3 use a computer to gain unauthorized access to data. Øprogram quickly and roughly.

          I think the program quickly and roughly is the old meaning. hacking away at the keyboard.

    1. We need to re-write the licensing laws and stick with patent law and trademarks periods for “art” that doesn’t change the whole fabric of society where the art turns into a survival requirements job aid or tool. Not only a entertainment (entrainment) mind damaging thing that only a psychopath would need.

    2. Linguistic history is well evident that the development of languages is based on culture, whatever the culture was established by the contemporary people/society , and not based on the wishes of any one person or a certain group of people. Need to understand or to accept a chellenge to change the cyber behaviours to establish a new culture of cyber surfing.

    3. Nonsense, if it wasn’t a crime that implies you had permission. Those are called “privateers,” not pirates.

      Often pirates are former privateers whose charter was revoked, and they keep stealing anyways.

  1. Ultimately the current meaning of the word hacker was re-defined by news/media corporations. The meaning of words change and evolve over time, like the meaning of “Plastic surgery” in 1598 (related to sword wounds) is slightly different than what it means today.

    1. “Ultimately the current meaning of the word hacker was re-defined by news/media corporations.”

      The news/media corporations still define/re-define words, in the name of Political Correctness.

    2. Same as with the word “Skinhead”. A subculture founded in the UK in the 60’s which had nothing to do with politics nor racism. In fact it was originally associated with soul, ska and reggae.
      However, this is nothing of interest to an editor, because facts are not created by the people , they are created by the media. Most of the people put their trust in the media for no reason, so they accept everything they excrete.

      However, to me definitions are just hot air. I’m not afraid of calling myself a hacker nor am I calling myself a skinhead.
      Cheers ‘n’ ‘Oi!

  2. Everyone wants to be a “hacker”, so it’s been watered down, and abused.

    There is some truth to “breaking in” since decades ago computer access was limited, so getting computer time might mean getting around the gatekeepers. The same with early “phone phreaks”, they were exploring but it was technically illegal.

    It was later that others wanted to break in for gain.

    I like the definition oh “hacker” as “experience based learner”. I missed that the first time I read the book, but a second reading a few years later it was obvious. I learned to program by trying things, and I learned electronics by reading endless construction articles, not by reading theory books first. The second time I read “Hackers” I was spending a lot of time with a four year old, and it was clear she was learning from experience. That shows it’s not technical.

    People want “hacker” to mean something very generic, but something technical, but so long as everyone wants to be one, it waters down the term, which then makes it hard to exclude the people trying to break into computers for malicious purposes.


  3. Descriptive lexicography helps destroy knowledge. When a technical term gains popularity in a casual and non-technical use, the original term is lost to but a few die-hards who are seen as out of touch with “the rest of us.”

    “What sort of idiot is he, trying to tell us that a quantum leap is tiny? Everyone knows it’s a Great Big Jump.”

    “When I say ‘literally’ I mean figuratively.”

    Few of us know the full set of terms of formal logic. Hence the all-too common use of the phrase, “This begs the question…” serves to further remove actual logic from everyday discourse. “Begging the question” (petitio principii) is a technical term that has come, in popular speech, to mean “raising the question.” Those who accept its everyday use as proper lose the ability to recognize the fallacy by name. Lexicographers who choose definitions by popularity are complicit in discarding knowledge.

    Why do people choose to use technical terms badly? I think it is an attempt to show their erudition. “I am a better person than you because I can say “quantum leap” while you have probably never heard the term. It’s quite technical; you would never understand it.”

      1. Typically though the syntax will tell if you if “use” is a verb, or part of a compound noun.

        As for begging the question, you seem to be asserting that there is a single meaning, and then introducing an alternate meaning, and then concluding that there is only a single meaning. Which you then take another step and declare some meanings must therefore be more virtuous than others.

        That begs the question, (petitio principii) but it also begs the question; what if words can have multiple meanings, and lexicographers don’t choose which definitions to bless, but merely document some definitions that are known to have been used? What then becomes of accusations of “discarding knowledge?” Are they supposed to be documenting all known uses, or are they supposed to be judging which uses are common enough to be useful in the particular dictionary being compiled? And isn’t that up to the publisher to define, rather than the reader?

    1. “What sort of idiot is he, trying to tell us that a quantum leap is tiny? Everyone knows it’s a Great Big Jump.”
      It is the smallest amount of movement that has any noticeable/measureable(?) effect.

  4. Yeah… seems there is an emotional magnification issue with society as a whole in most circles due to marketing and advertising propaganda. The fact is there are many acting like a civil society that are really wild animals (think juvenile goats at best and other primate slang terms used daily) with a false sense of a domesticated advanced complex societies human details (variables…, e.g. objects, properties, parameters, attributes, etc.) and reality… not just the “realty” ownership of property and a conspiring against others rights and deprivation of rights under color of law up to and including mass murdering the opponents off in a hostile take overs that are forensically clean if not blatantly kinetic obvious if there is no legal dual or war for the record.

    Just like black or white cyber and other bait and trap and worse operations… psychological operations perform using black and white methods… along with the illegal Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) Crime criminals that need to come forward and prove themselves as valid not emotionally magnified crooks only wise at mass murdering forensically clean using remote sensing and transmission operations and systems they probably stole or used stolen goods to acquire. There is a whole other world of cyber crime that has’t been addressed in enforcement… that of the EMS crime.

    What happened to using knowledge wisely for an honest job and living? I think like another gentleman noted… there is a lack of comprehension of “logic” that is even seen with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) where I like to note “logical” versus “reasonable” mind. I also like to associated emotional mind with identification methods logic, wise mind with qualitative methods logic and logical mind with quantitative methods logic.

    Then the math adds up and the algorithms aren’t an art anymore and are in fact an actual science that can be inductively and not just deductively engineered technically valid. Even lean sigma or six sigma methods valid without violating rights of man.

        1. The tangential thoughts are related in the complex range of examples for the main point… I’d just need to do an outline with a better introduction, body and conclusion. Thanks for the advise… English wasn’t my major for sure.

    1. Was this comment generated by a Markov Chain designed to use as many technical terms as possible? Or what did I just read? Not a single sentence in there makes any sense at all.

      1. zigarre: No, unless that is how my brain works.

        You read my brainstorming thoughts translated to text with no editing and not a clear intro, body and conclusion. Basically, the major point is primates with emotional thinking that isn’t logical rob us of our property using psychological operations that can be black or white operations and other similar operations using EMS weapons systems where ultimately our rights our violated and I didn’t really note where words can even change meaning over time where my opinion is the mockers of the victims who are the perpetrators of crime adapt a new language for the new degenerate society that is like I noted more inhumane and primate predatory as a society.

        Again, the primates placate on emotions and maybe are wise at that though not really logical for long term survival with associated metrics (more brute force ops) and I feel will like evolution seems to find predators go extinct… will go extinct also as my theory since we document so well in modern times and can disseminate information at higher rates and will continue that trajectory more-so in the future.

        I added more confusing details and in some circles some might want to violate my rights and act like I am illegal.

  5. Well, The term “Hacker” used to mean nothing really related to computer misbehavior the term was/is “cracker” but good old Hollywood wasn’t going to have any of that and now when you as OK what is a “Cracker” then? They answer “Oh they crack software”. So the terms are now confused from what they originally meant.

  6. If were going to change how the word hacker is perceived, maybe we shouldn’t be changing the name of hacker spaces to maker spaces.
    It’s difficult to make a stand if you’ve already shot yourself in the foot.

  7. ahhh… progress. Language changes all the time. For example a computer is a person who calculates things. And then they made a thing that could calculate on it’s own and over the years a computer is never referred to a a human any more. Although it still could be, but nobody would understand you.

    The meaning of a word is nothing more then the way it is used the most commonly, although that is not always the way a word was intended originally. It’s life, get over it. If we aren’t allowed to change the language (or redefine it) we would all be speaking in the same way as they did in the stone ages. Then again, I’m sure that hackers in those times really hacked something (as in chopping things up, breaking it down into smaller pieces, etc.) Because seriously “hacker” it isn’t the most sensible word for somebody who tries to break into a computer, or is it?

  8. I always thought that a “hacker” was someone whose pen-knife was often dull from scraping battery terminals, using as an improvised screwdriver, mini prising bar, etc.. Obviously, when the day comes that you actually want to cut the twine on that hay bale, or sharpen the pencil, alas the infant sword is blunt… and hack you must. The shame. The scorn of venerable battle hardened craftspeople. The guilt of the unhoned blade. Hackers.

    1. A true hacker saves a bit of sharp edge closest to the handle for theese purpouses. The ”pen-knife” as lamers refer to them is actually the true original multi tool good for scraping prying et.c including cutting.

  9. A hacker was the name used for an amateur or weekend golfer long before it became a computing term.
    I’m also curious if the Cambridge has the US spelling ‘modeler’ or UK ‘modeller’ but perhaps with Hackaday being a US site international contributors tend to conform to their spelling conventions rather than appear to be different.

  10. The problem is the view that a hacker “often” do illegal thing. This is not true. The vast majority of hacker (including Hackaday community) don’t do illegal things. By comparison, this is like if the word “driver” will be defined by “A person engaged in driving, often one that do so illegally.” Sure there is criminal on the road, but not to the point to change the definition of the word driver. Same rule must apply to the word hacker.

      1. “Driver” previously changed from the person in a carriage who holds the reins of the horse to something slightly more 20th-centuryish. Is that really a word? Did I just write 20th-centuryish? Behold! It’s a 21st-centuryish neologism! Word hacking!!!

  11. Sorry, just can’t leave it alone. Of course “hacker”, as a term, has (potential?) criminal connotations. Anyone who values results over regulatory methodology is criminal in thought, if not in deed. Do not get me wrong, I am not advocating cowboys and pirates. I am noting the surreal situations where I can get a client up and running for ten bucks in ten minutes by breaking the law or the client can wait a week and spend two hundred for the same thing. I tolerate(pejorative) the regs, I respect the underlying reason for them, but I also seem to have an old fashioned hang up with actually fixing stuff so it does what it needs to. There will always be tension between these things; regulation and doing stuff. Anyone who is more goal oriented than regulation compliant is walking a thin line.
    Again, I am not saying that there should not be regulation, or liability, or SOP. Don’t want reckless medicine, or rocketry. But. Round the edges of polite society, down at the low end, among the tired, the poor, the huddled masses… Dunno man. It is hard to refrain from solving a problem when it is in your power to do so. Hacking is the grease on the wheels of civilization, but it is also piratical; hackers conceptually place the goal before the law. Rebels and potential revolutionaries all. It is not that one cannot be an ethical hacker, it is that if you are a hacker you are not limiting your thinking to the interior of the legal box.(ethical != legal, alas) You hear that, Mr. Anderson? That is the sound of necessity.
    The illegal part of the definition should remain. You may not be illegal, I may not be illegal, but if we thought about solving the problem first and tempered that with the legalities after, well… Not the ethics, mind, the regs.

    1. Nice try, but a disagree: regulation is about consequences of your actions to the others. A long as your goal don’t have consequences on others, you are free use the method you wants to reach your goal, including incredibly cleaver hacking. And this is exactly what the vast majority of hackers do.

  12. The definition just says “often one who illegally obtain”s…. Point being the only people who should take offense are the criminals. The definition doesn’t automatically exclude the law abiding just because it “includes criminals sometimes or a lot”.

      1. Steam punks or whatever those not really the zombie groups… weren’t those a thing?

        Man…, what happened to basic parties with bands or loud music, bomb fires and/or not so artsy creative times. Must be the RIAA “art” jew juice. I guess can’t have scientific parties with things like bongs to filter nitrous that isn’t the Doc’s grade and other ingenuitive inventions like ice cold shots from a shot luge (that I see are now on sale online even (our generations were like foosball table size). Must be the pedos creativity to do things and forget about everything else.

  13. Because the lusers have sullied our term, I have retreated, but will not completely abandon, our word. Now I usually use the term “Classical Hacker” to convey what our word used to mean. I invite those who have ceded the battle to rejoin in at least a small show of defiance against the lusers.

    1. I don’t really see the problem…

      If a “hacker” really wanted the OED to have a different definition of “hacker”…
      all they would have to do is hack into the OEDs Dictionary Server and change it!
      (Carefully covering their tracks as they leave…)

  14. I’ve always thought the following statement is a good general definition that’s non-exclusive:
    “One who makes sense of complex systems and technologies often to improve design or for advantageous usage.”

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