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Today the MIT Sloan Executive Education program sent me an email with the subject line "The Spirit of Hacking at MIT":

While the terms hack and hacker have many shades of meaning, the hacker ethic has always been celebrated at MIT. Referring to a difficult, complex, and creative campus prank, hacking at MIT is everything from transforming MIT's Green Building into a giant game of Tetris to the most recent redecoration of the Great Dome as Captain America's shield.

To us, hacking means more than just practical jokes. It represents a culture of free information, hands-on experimentation, and disregard for (or redefinition of) bureaucracy. At MIT Sloan Executive Education, we recognize that the spirit of (ethical) hacking is the same fearless spirit that drives invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship.

At MIT Sloan, we applaud the “hackers” among you who are making waves. We encourage you to channel that spirit and hone those skills in Executive Education courses designed to help you revolutionize your business strategy, find creative solutions to systemic problems, and generate breakthrough business ideas.

The link goes to a page on the IHTFP Hack Gallery site listing "Hacks by Year" — other pages include "Best of the Gallery", "Hacks on Harvard", and "Frequently Asked Questions", where you'll learn that IHTFP doesn't really stand for "Interesting Hacks To Fascinate People".

For an in-depth exploration of the etymology of hacking, see "Joy and contempt", 5/25/2005:

[T]he three sources for modern English hack seem to be a word for a kind of horse; a word for cutting with heavy, irregular blows; and (more obscurely) a word for the racks used to make food available to cattle or to falcons.



  1. Laura Morland said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 5:50 pm

    Interesting that there's a whole section of "Hacks on Harvard," the intro to which states that "Harvard University, known to MIT students as "the little liberal arts school up Chuck river" or "the red brick school up the street," has always been a popular target of MIT hacks."

    In the classes to which my husband, John Rhodes (MIT S.B., Ph.D.), belongs, they have a habit of taking the opposite tack; they like to say, "I was educated near Harvard."

    The "Hacks" page further elaborates: "The fact that Harvard takes itself so much more seriously than MIT, as well as the fact that Harvard has a lot of "sacred" traditions (while MIT has almost none) give MIT hackers a lot of ammunition to work with."

    That point of view has remained stable for decades!

    P.S. Judging by this entry — http://hacks.mit.edu/Hacks/by_year/1996/unabomber/ — some "hacks" would more accurately be labeled as "pranks."

  2. Dan Riley said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 6:28 pm

    Where’s the entry for Aaron Swartz?

  3. Tim Rowe said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 6:39 pm

    There's a lot of discussion in The Jargon File of computing subculture's use of the word "hack", both in it's dictionary entry (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/H/hack.html) and in an appendix (http://www.catb.org/jargon/html/meaning-of-hack.html), which says, "Hacking might be characterized as ‘an appropriate application of ingenuity’. Whether the result is a quick-and-dirty patchwork job or a carefully crafted work of art, you have to admire the cleverness that went into it."

  4. ktschwarz said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 1:55 am

    That's a great Language Log post from 2005, but the OED etymologies that it cites were very old and have since been updated. The whole group including hack (noun and verb), hackney, hacker, etc. was revised in 2016. With better knowledge of documents from the 1300s, the OED now believes that hackney (hired horse) appeared first in English, probably derived from the village of Hackney (where horses were kept), and afterward was borrowed into French and other languages. More detail at Wordorigins.

    The quote from MIT's student newspaper ("Many telephone services have been curtailed because of so-called hackers," in 1963) is now the OED's first citation for hacker 3a: "A person who attempts to gain unauthorized access, esp. remotely, to a computer system or network."

    The extended and figurative senses, "hack (someone) off" and "hack it" and the computer senses, are all collected under the oldest verb hack as in chopping and cutting. As Prof. Liberman wrote in 2005, the semantic developments there are a bit nebulous, as "several different historical sources half-way merge into a highly polysemous collection of incompletely-differentiated words and phrases."

  5. Seth said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 2:55 am

    @ Dan Riley – Unfortunately, Swartz was trying to hack part of the academic journal system, a far higher stakes endeavor than redecorating the Great Dome. He was merely using MIT's network as part of that effort. And from the hacker point of view, he arguably planned it very poorly. Getting around the roofs of MIT buildings is not unreasonably dangerous for an athletic twentysomething rock climber. Getting around the copyright system is extremely dangerous for a techie twentysomething Internet activist.

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 11:20 am

    I am intrigued to learn from a link in the FAQ that IHTFP is said to represent not merely two different phrases but dozens. Is there a name for this phenomenon, where an initialism with one plausible origin eventually gives rise to multiple fanciful-and/or-jocular backronymic phrases, with perhaps a certain competitive expectation that denizens of the relevant milieu ought to be able to come up with one that hasn't been proposed previously? I can remember from my own long-ago undergraduate days another (much more marginal, in terms of visibility to the university as a whole) example and there must be others.

  7. Seth said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 3:07 am

    @ J.W. Brewer – IHTFP represents just one phrase in reality, and everything else is a joking reference built on that. It's a fairly common form of humor, though I think usually with just a few references. A few examples from color TV systems offhand:

    NTSC – Never The Same Color / Never Twice the Same Color
    PAL – Picture Always Lousy / Pale And Lurid / Perfect At Last
    SECAM – System Even Crappier/Crueler than the American Method

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 9:29 am

    @Seth: sure, your examples fit the bill just fine, but I remain curious if there's a name for the phenomenon.

  9. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 2:05 pm

    IHTFP in actual usage indicates that you've run into something that's maddeningly difficult, with the subtext that you're doing it because it's that difficult. It's the academic equivalent of hitting the wall in marathon running. So it's got an expansion that you mean in the moment, and other expansions (principally, I Have Truly Found Paradise) that explain how you keep getting into this situation.

    Of course, unlike NTSC or PCMCIA, there isn't an official expansion; the original is no more official than the parodies.

    Another case I can think of from MIT was "GSB" which officially stood for Girl Scout Benefit, supposedly because someone's relative's Girl Scout troop had a reward for collecting empty bottles. and Graduate Students could assist by emptying bottles of something that starts with "B" and shouldn't be announced on posters for school-sponsored events. I think these are more akin to double entendres in acronym form than cases where someone picks an acronym and someone else reacts to it.

  10. Peter Erwin said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 4:04 pm

    There's also a long tradition of hacks/pranks at Caltech, some of which have involved mocking MIT. (Possibly the most famous was a hack of the electronic scoreboard at the 1984 Rose Bowl game, which turned the UCLA-Illinois game into a Caltech-MIT game.)


  11. Dave said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 2:45 am

    To be "at hack" or "hacking" for both a falcon and a horse is to be doing unstructured activity, as opposed to "working" on structured formal lessons…

  12. Nat J said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 10:19 pm

    I would think that trying to co-opt a popular anarchic tradition in order to promote your business school would be a could way to make yourself the target of hostile pranks (pace the idea that its a "redefinition of bureacracy"). At least, I hope so.

  13. KeithB said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 8:32 am

    There is also EPCOT: Every Person Comes Out Tired.
    (Actually, Epcot would be an interesting Language Log study. It was originally the Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow*, or EPCOT, and after Disney's death got mangled into a theme park called Epcot.)

    *It actually an interesting idea: An industrial/shopping core surrounded by houses and apartments with people-movers providing the main transportation from the living areas to the core.

  14. astrange said,

    May 17, 2021 @ 3:36 am

    @Tim Rowe

    I should point out that while the Jargon File has a long history and pretty good basic discussion of terms like this, the author is rather biased and likes to write entries about how x thing or belief is popular when it's something only he believes. So I wouldn't trust it for what the median nerd is into.

  15. Philip Taylor said,

    May 18, 2021 @ 12:24 pm

    EPCOT (as originally envisaged) — any similarity to Abu Dhabi's https://masdar.ae/en/masdar-city ?

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