Dot Wordsworth


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A 72-year-old Australian called Stelarc, the BBC reported, has an ear growing from one arm. He hopes to connect a microphone to it so that people can hear on the internet the sounds it picks up. Mr Stelarc is a body-hacker. They tend to have names like Stelarc.

Hacker itself was first used as a surname, but not for a body-hacker or a computer-hacker. Adam le Hacker’s name was recorded in 1224. He was probably either a hedger or a maker of hacks; tools for chopping.

I had assumed without thinking about it that life hacks and computer hackers shared a verbal origin with journalistic hacks like myself. It is not so.

Oliver Goldsmith wrote an epitaph: ‘Here lies poor Ned Purdon, from misery freed, / Who long was a bookseller’s hack; / He led such a damnable life in this world — / I don’t think he’ll wish to come back.’ Edward Purdon really existed. Goldsmith had known him in Dublin before he dissipated his inheritance and fell dead in Smithfield aged 37. He won a place in the Dictionary of National Biography on the strength of Goldsmith’s lines.

Anyway, that kind of hack is like a hackney horse for hire, and is named after Hackney in London. And an argument that is hacked to death is not chopped about with a billhook but ridden to death like a hackney horse.

It is from hack in the sense of ‘chopping’ that hacking, or designing your own software, emerged in the 1970s. In the next decade hacking acquired the meaning of ‘gaining unauthorised access’ to a computer system. Yet already in 1963, students at MIT who got free phone calls by connecting a computer to the exchange were called hackers.

By the 1980s there was an ambiguity about hacking: either being keen at computer skills or getting at computers or telephones without authority. By then hackers had a 50-year history as unskilled enthusiasts in a sport, particularly golf. In the 1930s, Americans said they could hack it, if they managed to do something.

In the 21st century, cars, education, life itself were hacked by enthusiasts with stratagems like those of computer hackers. Why should the body be immune from being hacked about?