Laurie Barber: A crack at finding the origins of the word hack

A SEARCH FOR MEANING: Self-proclaimed 'hack' journalist Laurie Barber delves into the origins of the word.
A SEARCH FOR MEANING: Self-proclaimed 'hack' journalist Laurie Barber delves into the origins of the word.

If I recall correctly, I have sometimes referred to myself as a hack journalist.

When I was flipping through the dictionary recently, I discovered a hack in some dictionaries was a worn out horse or a prostitute.

The only term that referred to me was “worn out”.

At least, I can now say I am retired.

There are two hacks, with different origins, but they seemed to combine as the years wore on.

Hack is a word with many meanings and it goes back to at least 1300. In its early days it had few meanings, mainly to do with horses and falconry.

It came into English probably mid-1300.

Gradually, some other meanings were added and by 1721 the word also represented a hackney horse, or a horse “let out for hire”.

It also represented a horse for ordinary riding.

Then my big dictionary described hack as meaning a hackney coach for hiring, a prostitute, a watch and a hack writer. So I qualify after all, but please don’t think of me as a prostitute.

But I did find in a dictionary “to employ as a literary hack”.

The dictionary also said commonplace, but then it said that to hack was to kick the shin of an opponent intentionally with the toe of the boot. It mentioned rugby, but it did not say that in soccer the victim has to lie down and make out he’s at death’s door, just to emphasise the severity of the contact.

Then in 1704 Sir Richard Steele in Lying Lover said “we’ll take a hack”. Believe that if you wish. Surely, lovers don’t lie, do they?

I found a description that said “to put to promiscuous use”.

I don’t know what that means and I would rather not speculate.

But hack had many uses, such as to ply for hire, a miner’s pick, a bill for cutting wood, a wound, to embarrass, to gain unauthorised access to computer files (I had a friend called Hacker who felt obliged to change his email address), to mangle by jagged cuts, to plough the soil into small ridges. to dress stone with a hack-hammer, to stammer, to cough, to place bricks in rows, to keep young hawks, and the list goes on.

My Macquarie Dictionary says a hacker is a programming enthusiast who gains access to the system of a computer without permission. It says a hack is someone who does poor-quality literary or other work for a living.

I’m trying to think of all the places where I described myself as a hack journalist.

I don’t think I can withdraw all the occasions where I was so described.

You just have to make up your own mind, but be kind.