I had a spot on 7PM Project last week talking about Cybercrime, in particular the hack of the CIA by LulzSec. I got some comments afterwards about the abuse of the word hacker by the media. As a geek, I should know better. But I’m unrepentant.
The educated nerd knows that a hacker is someone with technical skills and that hacking is synonymous with coding or another sort of focused, applied and creative engineering. Someone who makes a habit out of circumventing security is a cracker. A safe cracker, or the act of cracking a code, would have the same provenance. Thus, the use of hacker in the context of network security would appear to be incorrect.
But it isn’t, really. One thing I took away from my study of linguistics was a respect for descriptive linguistics over the prescriptive. Language prescription, which is when an authority attempts to enforce the correct use of language, perhaps has some merit in helping standards to develop. But when the speakers of a language have diverged from that standard, attempting to force them back into conformity is always futile. Languages are living things, and evolve rapidly over time. This is something to be respected whether we think it desirable or not. (Those of us who enjoy using the neologisms of the day and take pleasure in adapting language for the current age will think it is.) So, where the dictionary definition conflicts with the meaning that is in overwhelming common usage, then it’s the dictionary that’s out of date, not the speakers.
This is clearly the case with the term ‘hacker’; to the vast majority of people I content that it conjures up the image of somebody (usually a pasty teenager) penetrating layers of network security for whatever end. The descriptive linguist in me concludes that there is no point fighting it even if we wanted to. In any case I’m certainly not going to preface an answer about the motivations of hackers with a linguistic correction.
You can watch the 7PM spot below.