A Year Ago: Are they 'hackers'? Or 'crackers'?

First published: Wed, 05 Apr 2000 15:03:13 GMT
Written by Henry Kingman, Contributor

According to the word police, there's a difference

But after 15 years watching the computer elite trying unsuccessfully to enforce a distinction, Henry Kingman has a word of advice: Just give it a rest!

Eric S. Raymond, lexicographer of the "New Hacker's Dictionary" -- it's really a repackaged, updated MIT jargon file -- doesn't want you to use "hacker" to refer to a computer criminal. A computer criminal is called a "cracker," he says. He says it loudly, he says it often -- seemingly every chance he gets. But it seems pretty clear that not even the guy who maintains the dictionary gets to choose how language is used. "Cracker" is about as likely to replace "hacker" in common parlance as "GNU/Linux" is to replace "Linux."

To be fair, Raymond is hardly the only member of the hacker word police. In fact, it seems that from the start the word "cracker" was contrived and promulgated by the computing elite in an explicit attempt to distance itself from nefarious tinkerers. On most any Unix/Linux box, type jargon cracker and you'll see:

    File: jargon.info, Node: cracker, Next: cracking, Prev: crack root, Up: = C =

    :cracker: /n./

      One who breaks security on a system. Coined ca. 1985 by hackers in defense against journalistic misuse of {hacker} (q.v., sense 8). An earlier attempt to establish 'worm' in this sense around 1981-82 on Usenet was largely a failure.

      Notice how it's always the journalists who get the blame? Apparently, we were misusing the word "hacker" even before we were provided with the politically correct alternative. The jargon-file entry for "hacker," meanwhile, includes seven highly positive definitions before arriving at what would be the most common usage outside the hacker subculture:

        8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence "password hacker" and "network hacker." The correct term for this sense is {cracker}.

        Similar definitions of cracking vs. hacking were included by Gary Scott Malkin and Tracy LaQuey Parker in rfc1392, a kind of glossary of Internet-related networking terms officially sanctioned by the IEEE and published in 1993:


            A cracker is an individual who attempts to access computer systems without authorization. These individuals are often malicious, as opposed to hackers, and have many means at their disposal for breaking into a system. See also: hacker, Computer Emergency Response Team, Trojan Horse, virus, worm.


              A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular. The term is often misused in a pejorative context, where "cracker" would be the correct term. See also: cracker.

            It seems reasonable that the computing elite, long-suffering in the defense of computer systems against miscreants, would hope for semantic distance between themselves and what they see as a separate, misbehaving subculture.

            But it may be simply asking too much of the general public to make this fine distinction, to discern a subculture within a subculture and apply the proper jargon with any rigor. Why else wouldn't this coinage have taken? Well, I suppose it could have been the strident tone of the hacker word police.

            Perhaps Raymond et al could try reading Bernice Randall, whose classic "Current American Usage" has become the authoritative text for journalists and other language professionals.

            Randall rises above the petty prescriptive grammar codices of yesteryear by observing that current usage is everything given the ever-changing rules and definitions of language. She also pokes fun at those who feverishly brandish "rules" that are not about to be adhered to. In her preface, Randall writes:

              In the past, dictionaries, usage guides, and commentaries, too, reflected an ideal language that had to be saved from those who spoke and wrote it. True, virtually all lexicographers and scholars try to be more objective today, recording usage instead of legislating it. But what defenders of linguistic law and order want are books that deplore the state of the language and, at the same time, exhort their readers to avoid words and constructions seen and heard every day."

              Of coinages Randall adds:

                Not all coinages, elliptical constructions, slang expressions, buzzwords, euphemisms, and the like find a permanent place in the language. Those that fill a need or satisfy a large number of people over time will last; those that don't, won't. Smog will probably be around long after a newspaper columnist's untrumors has been forgotten; Oval Office, long after Alexander Haig's verb caveat has been buried in Foggy Bottom.

                Whither then, cracker? Perhaps that should be "wither, then, cracker." Considering that 15 years of scolding have not been sufficient to bring the word to the mainstream, let's give it a rest. And if expressing that opinion makes me the enemy of "true" hackers, well ... all subcultures need a good enemy or two to bind them together, and journalists always make a good straw dog if you can't find a lawyer anywhere.

                Take me to Hackers

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