Hacker jargon

Transformation of word-groups into words involve different types of lexical shortening. Semantic extention is the appearance of new meanings of already existing words in the given language. Hacker speech, international and writing style, humour.

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This paper deals with computerization as a source of lexical, syntactic-stylistic, and phonetic changes in Modern English language. It focuses on hacker's jargon having its construction, stylistic peculiarities, and phonetic features as the target.

The scientific novelty of the paper lies in the attempt to systemize lexical, syntactic-stylistic, and phonetic changes, which are introduced by hacker culture to Modern English; to find out and describe particular features of hacker jargon; to analyze the correlation between basic hacker subcultures. A few hackers tried to analyze the language they use; the problem of hacker's jargon is still a moot point.

The theoretical value of the research lies in the fact that it is one of the first attempts to investigate the changes introduced to Modern English with the appearance of computers. We hope that the obtained data will make a contribution to the linguistic studies, especially to the pragmatic aspects of linguistics.

The practical value of the work is in the opportunity to apply the data to the process of teaching English at university: to teach conversational English at practical English classes, at lectures on English Lexicology or Stylistics.

The objective of the paper is to reveal and describe a set of lexicological, stylistic, and phonetic features of hacker jargon.

In accordance with the objective the following tasks are set:

1) to define the status of hacker jargon as a linguistic and sociocultural phenomenon;

2) to single out and analyze the most significant ways of forming hacker jargon;

3) to analyze the style hackers use in written and oral speech;

4) to provide pronunciation keys to the jargon.

The investigation was carried out on the material of Internet. 25 sites in total introducing the peculiarities of hacker jargon were analyzed through the use of diachronic, synchronic, descriptive approaches, through some elements of distributional, substitution, and oppositional methods of linguistic analysis and with some elements of conceptual, linguostylistic, and sociocultural analyses included.

The structure of the work is done in accordance with the general conceptual framework adopted. Part I of the paper dwells upon neologisms as a linguistic phenomenon, stylistic differentiation of Modern English vocabulary, the difference between slang, jargon, and techspeak, and hacker culture as a loosely networked collection of subcultures. Part II presents tentative applications of basic approaches to hacker jargon analysis in terms of linguistics, semantics, stylistics, and phonetics. Conclusions contain the description of the major results of the research.

1. Neologisms as a Linguistic Phenomenon

No living language remains stable; its vocabulary is constantly growing and changing. Some words drop out of the vocabulary of a language with changes in the social system, with the growth and development of culture and technology.

The object of our interest and investigation is neologisms. Many linguists have researched this phenomenon.

Neologisms is a linguistic term which refers to any newly coined word, word combination, a new meaning for an existing word, or a word borrowed from another language, the novelty of which is still felt

(Arnold: 217)

Lexicographers consider neologisms words that appeared in the language not later a certain time. Some researchers put this boundary to be after the end of World War II (: 12); some linguists think that neologisms are words invented after 1957 - the year of the first satellite aprobation and of space. ( ..: 16)

New lexical units may be coined through vocabulary extension and semantic extension.

Vocabulary extension is the appearance of new lexical items which usually appear as the result of

productive (patterned) ways of word-formation;

non-productive (non-patterned) ways of word-formation;

borrowing from other languages.

Semantic extension is the appearance of new lexical meanings of existing words.

(Ginsburg: 184)

Vocabulary Extension

Neologisms are usually coined out of elements, which already exist in Modern English. Deliberate coinage is mostly the product of one's creativity, ingenuity, and imitation. One should distinguish between patterned and non-patterned ways of word-formation.

The most widely used patterned means are:

affixation (suffixation and prefixation);



Neologisms coined by these means are made up of elements already available in the language. The novelty of them lies in the particular combination of these elements.

The affixes that are thought to be the most productive are: -ness, -er, mini-, over-:

e.g.: a roomer, well-to-do-ness, thingness, oneness etc.

The most productive patterns of forming new nouns are:

Verb + -er,

e.g.: brain-washer, double-talker;

Verb + -ing,

e.g.: cracking, phreaking.

The most frequent ways of verb coinage are:

un- + verb,

e.g.: unhook, undo, unbreak;

(adjective/noun + noun) + -ed, e.g.: long-legged, flat-bottomed

The most widely used ways of forming new adjectives are:

verb + -able,

e.g.: attachable, livable-in;

un- + Participle I or II,

e.g.: unguarded, unheard-of;

un- + adverb,

e.g.: unsouled, uncool.

Conversion, or zero- inflection, is a special non-affixal type of transforming a word into another part of speech.

(Marchand: 293)

The most frequently used patterns of conversion are:

Noun - verb

E.g.: a butcher - to butcher, a boss - to boss

Verb - noun

E.g.: to know how - the know-how, to catch - the catch

Adjective - noun

E.g.: intellectual - the intellectual, progressive - the progressive

Noun - adjective

E.g.: a maiden - maiden, a sidelong - sidelong

Composition of words is compounding a word of smaller words.

E.g.: fish-in, laugh-in etc.

The second component of compound nouns often becomes centers of inventions by analogy. For instance, the component sick in seasick and homesick led to invention of space-sick, airsick, carsick etc. Quake in earthquake led to birthquake (population explosion); scraper in skyscraper led to thighscraper (mini-scirt).

New words may be coined in a non-patterned way. There are two types of non-patterned way of word creation:

Lexicalization as a transformation of a word-form

Shortening which consists in substituting a part for a whole. It involves 1. transformation of a word-group into a word and 2. a change of the word-structure resulting in a new lexical item.

Due to various semantic and syntactic reasons a form that originally expressed grammatical meaning, for example, the plural of nouns, becomes a basis for a new lexical meaning. This process is called lexicalization.

E.g.: the nouns arms, customs lost their grammatical meaning and became isolated from the paradigm of the words arm, custom, and develop a different lexical meaning of weapons and import duties.

Occasional lexicalization of phrases is an effective linguistic device used for stylistic purposes.

E.g.: a happy-go-lucky man; these how-do-you-do's are annoying etc.

Shortening results in new lexical items proper only in written speech.

E.g.: RD for road, St for street, Apt for apartment etc.

However, in the process of language development many of the graphical abbreviations penetrate into the sphere of oral intercourse, for instance, a.m., p.m., SOS, etc.

Transformation of word-groups into words involve different types of lexical shortening:

Ellipsis or substantivasation;

Initial letter or syllable abbreviations (achronyms);


Substantivisation consists in dropping the final nominal member of a frequently used attributive word-group.

E.g.: the finals from the final examinations; a documentary from a documentary film.

Acronyms and letter abbreviations are lexical abbreviations of a phrase. They are regular vocabulary units spoken as words.

E.g.: BBC - British Broadcasting Corporation; radar - radio detection and ranging; V-day - Victory Day.

Blendings are the result of conscious creation of words by merging irregular fragments of several words.

E.g.: brunch from breakfast and lunch; radiotrician from radio and electrician; mike from microplane.

Borrowings are neologisms borrowed from foreign languages. The distinction should be made between:

Direct adoption of foreign words. Loan-words of this type can undergo different degrees of accommodation or remain unadopted;

Making new words by derivation or composition, including elements of different origin;

New derivatives or new compounds created by translation of the lexical unit into another languafe.

A lexical unit created by loan-translation is called a calque.

(Rayevska: 248)

The last decades of the 20-th century characterized by an intensive development of various sciences, technique, culture, and political life, has brought to Modern English a lot of new formations.

Semantic Extention

Semantic extention is the appearance of new meanings of already existing words in the given language. This process is caused by the following reasons:

Changes in social life of a community;

Changes of objects the names of which are retained;

Terminological use of words by people of various professional groups, where words modify their meaning acquiring a new sense;

Adaptation to special purposes

Many scholars have researched change of word meaning. There are various logical and psychological classifications of its types. Traditional classification is the following:

1)extension of meaning (generalization)

E.g.: hard drive (originally meant only heavy traffic on city roads, now also refers to slow work of a computer);

2)narrowing of meaning (specialization)

E.g.: garage (once meant any safe place, now means specifically a building for housing automobiles);

3)transference of meaning (metaphor and metonymy)

E.g.: He is such a bear; Black coats walked along the street.

4)Elevation of meaning (amelioration)

E.g.: minister (now means an important public official, but in earlier times meant merely servant)

(Rayevska: 149)

5)Degradation of meaning (perjoration)

E.g.: vulgar (originally meant happy)

Semantic extension is one of the most important ways of enlarging the vocabulary.

1.1 Stylistic Classification of the English Word-stock

The word-stock of any language must be presented a system, the elements of which are interconnected, interrelated, and yet independent.

(Galperin: 70)

Problems connected with vocabulary are so varied that it is difficult for many scholars to refer every given word to a certain subsystem of English word-stock.

Stylistically, the English language may be divided into three main layers:

Literary layer;

Neutral layer;

Colloquial layer.

Neutral layer of English vocabulary is the most stable one. The use of it is unrestricted. It can be employed in any sphere of human activity.

The literary layer of words consists of groups accepted as legitimate members of the English vocabulary. They have no local or dialectal character.

The colloquial layer of words is not infrequently limited to a definite language locality where it circulates.

(Rayevska: 72)

Most of the scholars distinguish among the literary vocabulary

Common literary words;

Terms and learned words;

Poetic words;

Archaic words;

Barbarisms and foreign words;

Literary coinages including nonce-words.

The colloquial vocabulary falls into the following groups:

Common colloquial words;



Professional words;

Dialectal words;

Vulgar words;

Colloquial coinages.

The Standard English vocabulary consists of common literary, neutral, and common colloquial words.

Common literary words are mostly used in writing and in polished speech.

The object of this paper is common colloquial vocabulary as it is considered to be a part of Modern Standard English and is constantly replenished by special colloquial vocabulary.

A lot of words from non-standard colloquial vocabulary are gradually losing their non-standard character and becoming widely recognized. However, they do not lose their colloquial association.

E.g.: guy (young man).

The Notion of Slang, Jargon, and Techspeak

The term slang is extremely vague and ambiguous. There are a lot of distinctions of it but none of them is specified exactly. It is presented both as a special vocabulary and as a special language. So, in most of the dictionaries sl. (slang) is used as a convenient stylistic notation for a word or a phrase that cannot be specified more exactly.

Jargon is a recognized term for a group of words that exists in almost every language and whose aim is to preserve secrecy within a social group of people. The most well-known jargons in English are: the jargon of thieves, generally known as cant; the jargon of jazz musicians etc.

Some American linguists refer to informal language as slang and reserve the term jargon for the technical vocabularies of various occupations. Some linguists consider slang to be regional, and jargon - social in character.

Professionalisms are the words used in a definite trade, profession or calling by people connected by common interests both at work. Professionalisms are correlated to terms, which are coined to nominate new concepts that appear in the process of technical progress and the development of science.

In this paper we research the language used by hackers - a technical culture that appeared under the influence of computerization. Hackish (see Glossary of Terms) is traditionally the jargon though many linguists distinguish it as slang.

To make a confused situation worse, the line between hackish slang and the vocabulary of technical programming and computer science is fuzzy, and shifts over time. Further, this vocabulary is shared with a wider technical culture of programmers, many of whom are not hackers and do not speak or recognize hackish slang.

Accordingly, we tried to distinguish among three categories:

slang: informal language from mainstream English or non-technical subcultures (bikers, thieves, rock fans etc).

jargon: informal slangy language peculiar to or predominantly found among hackers; it is the language hackers use among themselves for social communication, fun, and technical debates.

techspeak: the formal professional technical vocabulary of programming, computer science, electronics, and other fields connected to hacking.

This terminology will be consistently used throughout the remainder of this research project.

The distinction between jargon and techspeak is extremely delicate. A lot of techspeak originated as jargon, and there is a steady continuing uptake of jargon into techspeak. On the other hand, a lot of jargon arises from generalization of techspeak terms (see 2.2.4.).

It is very difficult to research the apparent origin of technical terms, for several reasons. First, many hackish usages have been independently reinvented multiple times, even among the more obscure and intricate neologisms. It often seems that the generative processes underlying hackish jargon formation have an internal logic so powerful as to create substantial parallelism in different languages. Second, the networks tend to propagate innovations so quickly that `first use' is often impossible to trace.

In general, techspeak considers any term that communicates primarily by a denotation well established in textbooks, technical dictionaries, or standards documents.

1.2 Hackerdom

"The word hack doesn't really have 69 different meanings", according to MIT hacker Phil Agre.

Hacking might be characterized as `an appropriate application of ingenuity'. An important secondary meaning of hack is `a creative practical joke'.

The hacker culture, or hackerdom is a loosely networked collection of subcultures that contains some important shared experiences, shared roots, and shared values. It has its own myths, heroes, villains, folk epics, in-jokes, taboos, and dreams. Because hackers as a group are particularly creative people who define themselves partly by rejection of `normal' values and working habits, it has unusually rich and conscious traditions for an intentional culture less than 40 years old.

As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold their culture together; it helps hackers to recognize each other's places in the community and expresses shared values and experiences. Also as usual, not knowing the slang (or using it inappropriately) defines one as an outsider, a mundane, or (worst of all in hackish vocabulary) possibly even a suit. All human cultures use slang in this threefold way - as a tool of communication, inclusion, and exclusion.

However, among hackers slang has a subtler aspect, which can be paralleled to the slang of jazz musicians and various kinds of fine artists but hard to detect in most technical or scientific cultures; parts of it are code for shared states of consciousness. There is a big range of altered states and problem-solving mental states basic to high-level hacking. Hacker slang encodes these subtleties in many unobvious ways. For example, there is a distinction between a kluge and an elegant solution, and the differing connotations attached to each. The distinction is not only of engineering significance; it reaches the nature of the generative processes in program design. Hacker slang is unusually rich in implications of this kind, of overtones and undertones that reveal the hackish psychology.

Hackers, as a rule, play with words and are very conscious and inventive in their use of language. Thus, linguistic invention in most subcultures of the modern West is largely an unconscious process. Hackers, by contrast, regard slang formation and use as a game to be played for conscious pleasure. Their inventions thus display an almost unique combination of enjoyment of language-play with the discrimination of educated and powerful intelligence. Further, the electronic media which keeps them together are fluid, `hot' connections, well adapted to both adopting of new slang and the ruthless culling of weak and exclusion of weak and old-fashioned words and word combinations. The results of this process give us a uniquely intense and accelerated view of linguistic evolution in action.

Hacker slang also challenges some common linguistic and anthropological assumptions. For example, it has recently become fashionable to speak of `low-context' versus `high-context' communication. Low-context communication is characterized by precision, clarity, and completeness of self-contained utterances. It is typical in cultures, which value logic, objectivity, individualism, and competition. By contrast, high-context communication (elliptical, emotive, nuance-filled, multi-modal, heavily coded) is associated with cultures, which value subjectivity, consensus, cooperation, and tradition. Hackerdom is widely known by extremely low-context interaction with computers and exhibits primarily "low-context" values, but cultivates an almost absurdly high-context slang style.

Hacker subcultures

The most well-known hacker subcultures are:




Cracking is the act of breaking into the computer system; what a cracker does. Contrary to widespread myth, this process does not usually involve hackish brilliance, but rather persistence and repetition of tricks that exploit common weaknesses in the security of target systems. Crackers are considered to be mediocre hackers. Use of both these neologisms reflects a strong revulsion against the theft and vandalism perpetrated by cracking rings. It is expected that any real hacker does some playful cracking and knows many of the basic techniques, anyone is expected to have overcome the desire to do so except for urgent, practical reasons (for example, if it's necessary to break a security in order to do something lively necessary).

Thus, there is a greater difference between hackerdom and crackerdom than most peoplemisled by sensationalistic journalism might think. Crackers tend to gather in small, very secretive groups that have little overlap with the huge, open poly-culture of hackers; though crackers often describe themselves as hackers; hackers, in their turn, consider crackers a lower form of life; they do not respect anyone who breaks into someone else's computer.

Phreaking is the art and science of cracking the phone network (so as, for example, to make free long-distance calls). By extension, security-cracking is used in any other context (especially, on communications networks). At one time phreaking was a semi-respectable activity among hackers; there was a gentleman's agreement that phreaking as an intellectual game and a form of exploration was normal, but serious theft of services was a taboo. There was significant crossover between the hacker community and the hard-core phone phreaks who ran semi-underground networks of their own. This ethos began to break down in the mid-1980s as wider dissemination of the techniques put them in the hands of less responsible phreaks. Around the same time, changes in the phone network made old-style technical ingenuity less effective as a way of hacking it, so phreaking came to depend more on criminal acts such as stealing phone-card numbers.

LISP (from `LISt Processing language', but mythically from `Lots of Irritating Superfluous Parentheses' is a language based on the ideas of variable-length lists and trees as fundamental data types, and the interpretation of code as data and vice-versa. All LISP functions and programs are expressions that return values; this, together with the high memory utilization of LISPs, gave rise to a famous saying (a periphrasis of Oscar Wilde quote) that "LISP programmers know the value of everything and the cost of nothing".

2. Jargon Construction

techspeak hacker jargon

There are some standard methods of jargonification that became established quite early (i.e., before 1970). These include verb doubling, soundalike slang, the `-P' convention, overgeneralization, spoken inarticulations, and anthropomorphization. These methods, as well as the standard comparatives for design quality are covered below.

Of these six, verb doubling, overgeneralization, anthropomorphization, and (especially) spoken inarticulations have become quite general; but soundalike slang is still largely confined to MIT and other large universities, and the `-P' convention is found only where LISPers flourish.

Verb Doubling

A standard construction in English is to double a verb and use it as an exclamation.

E.g. "Bang, bang!" or "Quack, quack!

Most of these are names for noises. Hackers also double verbs as a concise, sometimes sarcastic comment on what the implied subject does. Also, a doubled verb is often used to terminate a conversation, in the process remarking on the current state of affairs or what the speaker intends to do next. Typical examples involve win, lose, hack, flame, (see Glossary of Terms) culture has one *tripling* convention unrelated to this; the names of `joke' topic groups often have a tripled last element. The first and paradigmatic example was alt.swedish.chef.bork.bork.bork.

Soundalike Slang

Hackers often make rhymes or puns in order to convert an ordinary word or phrase in order to achieve a humorous effect. It is considered particularly flavorful if the phrase is bent so as to include some other jargon word. For instance, the computer hobbyist magazine "Dr. Dobb's Journal" is almost always referred to among hackers as `Dr. Frob's Journal' or simply `Dr. Frob's'. Terms of this kind that have been in fairly wide use include names for newspapers

E.g.: Boston Herald - Horrid (or Harried)

Boston Globe - Boston Glob

Houston (or San Francisco) Chronicle - the Crocknicle (or the Comical)

New York Times - New York Slime

However, the following terms are often made up on the spur of the moment. Standard examples include:

IBM 360 - IBM Three-Sickly

Government Property -- Do Not Duplicate (on keys)

?Government Duplicity -- Do Not Propagate

for historical reasons - for hysterical raisins

Soundalike slang has been compared to the Cockney rhyming slang it has been compared to in the past (see the Glossary of Terms). They are not really similar because Cockney substitutions are opaque whereas hacker punning jargon is intentionally transparent.

The -P convention

The -P convention means turning a word into a question by adding the syllable `P'. It originated from the LISP convention of appending the letter `P' to denote a predicate. The question expects a yes/no answer.

E.g.: 1) At dinnertime:

Question: "Foodp?"

Answer: "Yeah, I'm pretty hungry." or "T!"

2) Instead of How are you doing?:

Question: "State-of-the-world-P?"

Answer: (Straight) "I'm about to go home."

Answer: (Humorous) "Yes, the world has a state."

3) On the phone to Florida:

Question: "State-p Florida?"

Answer: "Been reading JARGON.TXT again, eh?"

Once, when Bill Gosper, a famous hacker, was at a Chinese restaurant with his friends, he wanted to know whether someone would like to share with him a two-person-sized bowl of soup. His inquiry was: "Split-p soup?" It is known to be one of the best hacks.

The most frequently used positive reply to a question using is T', which is taken from the LISP terminology and means true'. Some LISP hackers use `T' and `NIL' (New Implementation of LISP) instead of `Yes' and `No' almost reflexively. This sometimes causes misunderstandings. For example, when a waiter or flight attendant asks whether a hacker wants coffee, he may absently respond `T', meaning that he wants coffee; but of course he will be brought a cup of tea instead.


A very conspicuous feature of jargon is the frequency with which techspeak items such as names of program tools, command language primitives, and even assembler codes are applied to contexts outside of computing wherever hackers find amusing analogies to them. One of the best-known examples of generalization is that Unix hackers often grep (see the Glossary of Terms) for things rather than search for them.

Hackers enjoy generalization on the grammatical level as well. They add the wrong endings to various words and them make nouns and verbs, often by extending a standard rule to non-uniform cases (or vice versa).

E.g.: porous - porosity

generous - generosity

Hackers successfully generalize:

mysterious - mysteriosity

ferrous - ferrosity

obvious => obviosity

dubious => dubiosity

Another class of common construction uses the suffix `-itude' to abstract a quality from almost any adjective or noun. This usage arises especially in cases where mainstream English would perform the same abstraction through `-iness' or `-ingness'.

E.g. win => winnitude (a common exclamation)

loss => lossitude

cruft => cruftitude

lame => lameitude

Some hackers cheerfully reverse this transformation. For example, they argue, that the horizontal degree lines on a globe ought to be called `lats' because they measure latitude!

Also, hackers noun verbs.

E.g.: "I'll mouse it up", "Hang on while I clipboard it over".

This is only a slight overgeneralization in modern English that all verbs can be nouned. In hackish, however, it is good form to mark them in some nonstandard way.

E.g.: disgust => disgustitude

hack => hackification

English as a whole is already heading in the direction towards pure-positional grammar like Chinese; hackers are simply a little ahead of the process.

However, hackers avoid the unimaginative verb-making techniques characteristic of marketroids, bean counters, and the Pentagon; a hacker would never, for example, `productize', `prioritize', or `securitize' things. Hackers have a strong aversion to bureaucratic bafflegab and regard those who use it with contempt.

Further, certain kinds of nonstandard plural forms prevail in hacker jargon. Some of these go back quite a ways; the TMRC Dictionary includes an entry which implies that the plural of `mouse' is meeces, and notes that the defined plural of `caboose' is `cabeese'. This latter has apparently been a standard joke among railroad enthusiasts for many years.

On a similarly Anglo-Saxon note, almost anything ending in `x' may form plurals in `-xen'. Even words ending in phonetic /k/ alone are sometimes treated this way.

E.g.: `soxen' for a bunch of socks.

Other funny plurals are `frobbotzim' for the plural of `frobbozz' (see frobnitz) and `Unices' and `Twenices' (rather than `Unixes' and `Twenexes'. But note that `Unixen' and `Twenexen' are never used; it has been suggested that this is because `-ix' and `-ex' are Latin singular endings that attract a Latinate plural. Finally, it has been suggested to general approval that the plural of `mongoose' ought to be `polygoose'.

The pattern here, as with other hackish grammatical quirks, is generalization of an inflectional rule that in English is either an import or a fossil (such as the Hebrew plural ending `-im', or the Anglo-Saxon plural suffix `-en') to cases where it isn't normally considered to apply.

This is not `poor grammar', as hackers are generally quite well aware of what they are doing when they distort the language. It is grammatical creativity, a form of playfulness. It is done not to impress but to amuse, and never at the expense of clarity.

Spoken Inarticulations

Words such as `mumble', `sigh', and `groan' are spoken in places where their referent might more naturally be used. It has been suggested that this usage derives from the impossibility of representing such noises in electronic mail. Interestingly, the same sorts of constructions have been showing up with increasing frequency in comic strips. Another expression sometimes heard is "Complain!" meaning "I have a complaint!"


Semantically, one rich source of jargon constructions is the hackish tendency to anthropomorphize hardware and software. This isn't done in a naive way; hackers do not believe that the things they work on every day are `alive' but it is common to hear of hardware or software as though it has some creatures talking to each other inside it, with intentions and desires. E.g.: "The protocol handler got confused", Programs are trying to do smth, A routine's goal in life is to X". One even hears explanations like "... and its poor little brain couldn't understand X, and it died."

Anything with a really complex behavioral repertoire is usually thought of as `like a person' rather than `like a thing'. Thus, anthropomorphisation makes sentences easier to understand.


Many words in hacker jargon have to be understood as members of sets of comparatives. This is especially true of the adjectives and nouns used to describe the beauty and functional quality of code. Here is an approximately correct spectrum:














The last is spoken of as a mythical absolute, approximated but never actually attained.

Another similar scale is used for describing the reliability of software: broken









`Dodgy' is primarily Commonwealth Hackish and it is rare in the U.S.A. and may change places with `flaky' for some speakers.

Coinages for describing lossage seem to call forth the very finest in hackish linguistic inventiveness.

It has been truly said that hackers have even more words for equipment failures than Yiddish has for obnoxious people.

2.1 Hacker Style

Hacker Speech Style

Hackish speech generally features extremely precise diction, careful word choice, a relatively large working vocabulary, and relatively little use of contractions or street slang. Dry humor, irony, puns, and a mildly flippant attitude are highly valued -- but an underlying seriousness and intelligence are essential. One should use just enough jargon to communicate precisely and identify oneself as a member of the culture; overuse of jargon or a breathless, excessively gung-ho attitude is not respected.

This speech style is a variety of the precisionist English normally spoken by scientists, design engineers, and academics in technical fields. In contrast with the methods of jargon construction, it is fairly constant throughout hackerdom.

It has been observed that many hackers are confused by negative questions - or the people to whom they talk are often confused by the sense of their answers. They have done so much programming that distinguishes between if (going) ... that means If we are going and if (!going) ...that means If we are not going when they parse the question "Aren't you going?" it seems to be asking the opposite question from "Are you going?", and so merits an answer in the opposite sense. This confuses English-speaking non-hackers because they were taught to answer as though the negative part weren't there. In some other languages (including Russian, Chinese, and Japanese) the hackish interpretation is standard and the problem wouldn't arise. Hackers often find themselves wishing for a word like French `si' or German `doch' with which one could unambiguously answer `yes' to a negative question.

For similar reasons, English-speaking hackers almost never use double negatives, even if they live in a region where colloquial usage allows them. The thought of uttering something that logically ought to be an affirmative knowing it will be misparsed as a negative tends to disturb them.

In a related vein, hackers sometimes make a game of answering questions containing logical connectives with a strictly literal rather than colloquial interpretation. A non-hacker who is indelicate enough to ask a question like "So, are you working on finding that bug now or leaving it until later?" is likely to get the perfectly correct answer "Yes!" (that is, "Yes, I'm doing it either now or later, and you didn't ask which!").

Hacker Writing Style

As it has been said, hackers often coin jargon by generalizing grammatical rules. This is one aspect of a more general fondness for form-versus-content language jokes that shows up particularly in hackish writing. Hackers claim that many people have been known to criticize hacker jargon by observing: This sentence no verb, or Too repetetetive, or Bad speling, or Incorrectspa cing.

Similarly, intentional spoonerisms are often made of phrases relating to confusion or things that are confusing; `dain bramage' for `brain damage' is perhaps the most common (similarly, a hacker would be likely to write Excuse me, I'm cixelsyd today, rather than I'm dyslexic today). This sort of thing is quite common and is enjoyed by all concerned.

Hackers tend to use quotes as balanced delimiters like parentheses, much to the dismay of American editors. Thus, if Jim is going is a phrase, and so are Bill runs and Spock groks, then hackers generally prefer to write: Jim is going, Bill runs, and Spock groks. This is incorrect according to Standard American usage (which would put the continuation commas and the final period inside the string quotes).

Hackers tend to distinguish between `scare' quotes and `speech' quotes; that is, to use British-style single quotes for marking and reserve American-style double quotes for actual reports of speech or text included from elsewhere. Interestingly, some authorities describe this as correct general usage.

One further not standard permutation is a hackish tendency to do marking quotes by using apostrophes (single quotes) in pairs; that is, `like this'.

In the E-mail style of UNIX hackers in particular there is a tendency for usernames and the names of commands and C routines to remain uncapitalized even when they occur at the beginning of sentences. For many hackers, the case of such identifiers becomes a part of their internal representation (the `spelling').

Behind these nonstandard hackerisms there is a rule that precision of expression is more important than conformance to traditional rules; where the latter create ambiguity or lossage of information. It is notable in this respect that other hackish inventions in vocabulary tend to carry very precise shades of meaning even when constructed to appear slangy and loose.

Hackers have also developed a number of punctuation and emphasis conventions.

One of these is that TEXT IN ALL CAPS IS INTERPRETED AS `LOUD', a person that writes in this way may be asked to stop shouting, please, you're hurting my ears!

Also, it is common to use bracketing with unusual characters to signify emphasis. The asterisk is the most common, even though this interferes with the common use of the asterisk as a footnote mark.

E.g.: What the hell?

The underscore is also common, suggesting underlining. This is particularly common with book titles.

E.g.: It is often alleged that Joe Haldeman wrote TheForeverWar as a rebuttal to Robert Heinlein's earlier novel of the future military, Starship Troopers.

Other forms exemplified by =hell=, \hell/, or /hell/ are occasionally seen. Some hackers claim that in the last example the first slash pushes the letters over to the right to make them italic, and the second keeps them from falling over.

Finally, words may also be emphasized LIKETHIS, or by a series of carets (^) under them on the next line of the text.

There is a semantic difference between emphasis LIKE THIS(which emphasizes the phrase as a whole), and emphasis LIKETHIS (which suggests the writer speaking very slowly and distinctly, as if to a very young child or a mentally impaired person). Bracketing a word with the `' character may also indicate that the writer wishes readers to consider that an action is taking place or that a sound is being made.

E.g.: `bang', `ring', `mumble'.

There is also an accepted convention for `writing under erasure'; the text Be nice to this fool HHHH gentleman, he's visiting from corporate HQ. may be interpreted as Be nice to this fool, er, gentleman...

Crackers, phone phreaks, and warez d00dz (mostly teenagers running PC-clones from their bedrooms) have developed their own characteristic jargon, heavily influenced by skateboard lingo and underground-rock slang.

Here is a brief guide to cracker and warez d00dz usage:

Misspell frequently. The substitutions

phone => fone

freak => phreak are obligatory.

Always substitute `z's for `s's. (i.e. "codes" -> "codez").

Type random emphasis characters after a post line (i.e. "Hey Dudes!#!$#$!#!$").

Use the emphatic `k' prefix ("k-kool", "k-rad", "k-awesome") frequently.

Abbreviate compulsively ("I got lotsa warez w/ docs").

Substitute `0' for `o' ("r0dent", "l0zer").


*' signifies multiplication but two asterisks in a row are a shorthand for exponentiation (this derives from FORTRAN). Thus, one might write 2 ** 8 = 256.

Another notation for exponentiation one sees more frequently uses the caret (^, ASCII 1011110); one might write instead `2^8 = 256'.

In on-line exchanges, hackers tend to use decimal forms or improper fractions (`3.5' or `7/2') rather than `typewriter style' mixed fractions (`3-1/2'). The major motive here is probably that the former are more readable, together with a desire to avoid the risk that the latter might be read as `three minus one-half'. The decimal form is definitely preferred for fractions with a terminating decimal representation; there may be some cultural influence here from the high status of scientific notation.

Another on-line convention, used especially for very large or very small numbers, is taken from C (which derived it from FORTRAN). This is a form of `scientific notation' using `e' to replace `*10^'; for example, one year is about 3e7 seconds long.

The tilde (~) is commonly used in a quantifying sense of `approximately'; that is, `~50' means `about fifty'.

On USENET common logical and relational operators such as `|', `&', `||', `&&', `!', `==', `!=', `>', `<', `>=', and `=<' are often combined with English. The use of prefix `!' as a loose synonym for `not-` or `no-` is particularly common; thus, `!clue' is read `no-clue' or `clueless'.

A related practice borrows syntax from preferr oday's

net volumes?

#endif /* FLAME */

I guess they figured the price premium for true

frame-based semantic analysis was too high.

Unfortunately, it's also the only workable approach.

I wouldn't recommend purchase of this product unless

you're on a very tight budget.



== Frank Foonly (Fubarco Systems)

In the above, the `#ifdef' / `#endif' pair is a conditional compilation syntax from C; here, it implies that the text between should be evaluated only if you have turned on (or defined on) the switch FLAME. The `#include' at the end is C for include standard disclaimer here; the `standard disclaimer' is understood to read, roughly, These are my personal opinions and not to be construed as the official position of my employer.

The top section in the example, with > at the left margin, is an example of an inclusion convention we'll discuss below.

Hackers also mix letters and numbers more freely than in mainstream usage. In particular, it is good hackish style to write a digit sequence where you intend the reader to understand the text string that names that number in English. So, hackers prefer to write `1970s' rather than `nineteen-seventies' or `1970's' (the latter looks like a possessive).

It should also be noted that hackers exhibit much less reluctance to use multiply nested parentheses than is normal in English. Part of this is almost certainly due to influence from LISP (which uses deeply nested parentheses (like this (see?)) in its syntax a lot), but it has also been suggested that a more basic hacker trait of enjoying playing with complexity and pushing systems to their limits is in operation.

Finally, it is worth mentioning that many studies of on-line communication have shown that electronic links have a de-inhibiting effect on people. Deprived of the body-language cues through which emotional state is expressed, people tend to forget everything about other parties except what is presented over that ASCII link. This has both good and bad effects. A good one is that it encourages honesty and tends to break down hierarchical authority relationships; a bad one is that it may encourage depersonalization and gratuitous rudeness. Perhaps in response to this, experienced netters often display a sort of conscious formal politesse in their writing that has passed out of fashion in other spoken and written media (for example, the phrase Well said, sir! is not uncommon).

Many introverted hackers who are next to inarticulate in person communicate with considerable fluency over the net, perhaps precisely because they can forget on an unconscious level that they are dealing with people and thus don't feel stressed and anxious as they would face to face.

Though it is considered gauche to publicly criticize posters for poor spelling or grammar, the network places a premium on literacy and clarity of expression. It may well be that future historians of literature will see in it a revival of the great tradition of personal letters as art.

International Style

Though the hacker-speak of other languages often uses translations of jargon from English, the local variations are interesting, and knowledge of them may be of some use to travelling hackers.

There are some variations in hacker usage as reported in the English spoken in Great Britain and the Commonwealth (Canada, Australia, India, etc. - though Canada is heavily influenced by American usage). Commonwealth hackers are more likely to pronounce transactions like char and soc, etc., as spelled /char/, /sok/, as opposed to American /keir/ and /sohsh/. Dots in newsgroup names (especially two-component names tend to be pronounced more often.

E.g.: soc.wibble is /sok dot wib'l/ rather than /sohsh wib'l/.

The prefix meta may be pronounced /mee't*/; similarly, Greek letter is usually /bee't*/, zeta is usually /zee't*/, and so forth. Preferred metasyntactic variables include `eek', `ook', `frodo', and `bilbo'; `wibble', `wobble', and in emergencies `wubble', `flob', etc.

Alternatives to verb doubling include suffixes `-o-rama', `frenzy', and `city'.

E.g.: hack-o-rama!, core dump frenzy!, barf city!'

Finally, the American terms for parenthesis, brackets, and braces for (), [], and {} are uncommon. Commonwealth hackish prefers brackets, square brackets, and curly brackets.

Hackers in Western Europe and (especially) Scandinavia report that they often use a mixture of English and their native languages for technical conversation. Occasionally they develop idioms in their English usage that are influenced by their native-language styles. Some of these are reported here.

Hacker Humour

A distinctive style of shared intellectual humor found among hackers has the following marked characteristics:

1. Fascination with form-vs.-content jokes, paradoxes, and humor having to do with confusion of. A metasyntactic variable is a variable in notation used to describe syntax, and meta-language is language used to describe language.

Metasyntactic variable is a name used in examples and understood to stand for whatever thing is under discussion, or any random member of a class of things under discussion. The word foo is the canonical example. To avoid confusion, hackers never use `foo' or other words like it as permanent names for anything. In filenames, a common convention is that any filename beginning with a metasyntactic-variable name is a scratch file that may be deleted at any time.

To some extent, the list of one's preferred metasyntactic variables is a cultural signature. They occur both in series and as singletons. Here are a few common signatures: foo, bar, baz, quux, quuux, quuuux...:

Some jargon terms are also used as metasyntactic names; barf and mumble, for example.

2. Elaborate deadpan parodies of large intellectual constructs, such as standards documents, language descriptions.

3. Fascination with puns and wordplay.

2.2 Pronunciation Features

Pronunciation keys provided in the Glossary of Terms are not dictionary words pronounced as in standard. Slashes bracket phonetic pronunciations, which are to be interpreted using the following conventions:

1. Syllables are hyphen-separated, except that an accent or back-accent follows accented syllable (the back-accent marks a secondary accent in some words of four or more syllables). If no accent is given, the word is pronounced with equal accentuation on all syllables (this is common for abbreviations).

1.Consonants are pronounced as in standard English:

`g' is always hard (as in "got" rather than "giant");

terminal `r' (as in hard or more) may be pronounced or not depending on the local dialect

`j' is the sound that occurs twice in "judge";

`s' is always as in "pass", never a z sound;

the diagraph `ch' is soft (as in "church" rather than "chemist");

the digraph `kh' is the guttural of "loch" or "l'chaim";

the digraph 'gh' is the aspirated g+h of "bughouse" or "ragheap" (this case is rare in English).

2. Uppercase letters are pronounced as their English letter names; E.g.: /H-L-L/ is equivalent to /aych el el/.

/Z/ may be pronounced /zee/ or /zed/ depending on the local dialect.

4. Vowels are represented as follows:


back, that


father, palm

/ar/ or /a:/

far, mark


flaw, caught


bake, rain


less, men


easy, ski

/eir/ or /ea/

their, software


trip, hit


life, sky


block, stock (see note)


flow, sew


loot, through

/or/ or /o:/

more, door


out, how


boy, coin


but, some


put, foot


yet, young


few, chew

The glyph /*/ is used for the `schwa' sound of unstressed or occluded vowels (the one that is often written with an upside-down `e'). The schwa vowel is omitted in syllables containing vocalic r, l, m or n; that is, `kitten' and `color' would be rendered /kit'n/ and /kuhl'r/, not /kit'*n/ and /kuhl'*r/.

The above table reflects mainly distinctions found in Standard English (that is, the neutral dialect spoken by TV network announcers and typical of educated speech). Speakers of British Received Pronunciation can smash terminal /r/ and all unstressed vowels. Speakers of many varieties of southern American will automatically change /o/ to /aw/ or /ah/, etc. Entries with a pronunciation of `//' are written-only usages.


Computerization, hacker culture, and hacker jargon are viewed here as a source of lexical, semantic-stylistic, and phonetic changes it introduces into Modern English.

Further investigation of the hacker culture influencing Modern English from the perspective


1. .. . ., 1968. - 126 .

2. .. . ., , 1973. - 301 .

3. .. . .: , 1958. - 458 .

4. .., .., .. .. . - 2- ., . . - .: ,1979. - 269 .

5. .. . ., 1965.

6. .. . ., 1965.

7. .. . ., 1972.

8. .. . .: , 1993. - 256 .

9. .. .

10. .. . ., 1971.

Glossary of Terms

= A =

AI /A-I/ /n./ Abbreviation for `Artificial Intelligence', so common that the full form is almost never written or spoken among hackers.

AI-complete /A-I k*m-pleet'/ /adj./ [MIT, Stanford: by analogy with `NP-complete' (see NP-)] Used to describe problems or subproblems in AI, to indicate that the solution presupposes a solution to the `strong AI problem' (that is, the synthesis of a human-level intelligence). A problem that is AI-complete is, in other words, just too hard. Examples of AI-complete problems are `The Vision Problem' (building a system that can see as well as a human) and `The Natural Language Problem' (building a system that can understand and speak a natural language as well as a human).

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