How to Hack Language Like a Lumberjack (or: What's Your Hacking Hobby?)

As a linguist it's not part of my job to criticize and begrudge the evolving use of language. When words like "selfie" enter the dictionary and half the country of Britain starts calling things awesome, I'm right there. Both teaching and describing language are more about being aware of the words that we use every day and documenting how people communicate. And today I wanted to dive into the deeper meaning of a word that seems to have completely transformed its meaning over recent years. It's language-related, and learning-related too. And to me, it's become about mindset. I often find myself rolling my eyes at this one, but read on to find out more about the original meaning of the word that won't go away: hacking.

From Rough Cuts to Life Tips

Here's what the original meaning of the word hack would have looked like:


Back in the 20th century, hacking wasn't much more than making tough cuts into wood or meat to take it apart. The word's meaning started its transformation in the 1960s at MIT, first describing different study styles and later taking on the "computer hacker" meaning we all think of these days. As a German speaker, the word "Hack(fleisch)" also evokes a relation to the English "hash" the food context), not what you might have been thinking!

The figurative meaning is about disruption and about destroying existing structures. You go in with rough power and take something apart to gain access to what's underneath. In computing, this is how hacking (strictly speaking "password hacking") came to mean cutting through the defences of a network to get at the information protected within.

These days though, it's clear that the idea of hacking has struck a chord with so many people that the word has entered common usage for many of us. You can "hack" anything, with a vague association of "making it easier without too much effort".

The leading examples of stuff that can be hacked seem to be IKEA, life and..language! Here are just a few references

  • To start with the obvious, at least for readers of Fluent, there is the Language Hacking Guide, an ebook by Benny Lewis all about quick ways to learn and use languages
  • There is IKEA Hacking, a practice of taking your tools to flatpack furniture from IKEA in order to make it into the furniture of your dreams
  • Travel Hacking promises to open up the world of travel for people without making them spend a lot of money through the use of airmiles and credit cards.
  • And you may have also seen websites like Lifehacker, sharing tips of varying usefulness about any aspect of making living a little bit easier (here's a classic unnecessary "hack")

Here is a diagram from Google Trends showing how the last three years in particular have been the time of the hacks. In addition to the four leading terms, I did try to add some minor terms as well such as "career hacking", "diet hacking" and "future hacking", but those pale in comparison next to these big things that might need to be hacked:

So, About the Language Hacking Context

The original definition of the term "hack" is an inelegant but effective solution to a specific computing problem.

With this definition in mind, the idea of language hacking will appeal to learners who want to cut time spent studying and maximize time spent talking. We all love bridging a gap with the least effort required. Where the idea of "hacking" in the language context can make sense is when it comes to getting out of books and classroom. I particularly like the idea of making the "language hack" a subversion of what you remember from your own language lessons in school. This is not about repeating pitch-perfect phrases in order to hit a grade, but about going out and making a mistake in order to learn. The thing you're hacking is not the learning method, but the mindset.

While "language hacking" certainly doesn't mean that you'll start uncovering magic secrets of language learning, the attention-grabbing title gives you an idea of taking the unconventional approach. Learning by doing and following an individual path in learning, that's a super valuable message. Maybe it should be called "study hacking", since you're not actually doing much to the language itself.

What Do You Hack?

Personally, I have always thought that the word "hack" is plain ugly. I can't help associating it with axes, pain and brutality, so you're unlikely to see any Fluent Hacking products coming any time soon. And yes, here we can see the stereotypical masculine associations again, right? "Hacking" originates in the tech world (which we know is totally a man's world, even in the 21st century!) and is a word used to demonstrate power and force. The side of me that enjoys the idea of subverting and playing with existing rules rejoices at every life, language and travel hack that I see out there. In other words, I don't like "hacking", but I love creativity.

Some other perspectives: * The Faux Hackers who Hacked the Word Hacking on Vasco * Where Does the Word Hacking Come From? on English Stackexchange

What about you? Ever hacked a language?