Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 145 / OCTOBER 1992 / PAGE 80

The New Hacker's Dictionary. (book reviews)
by Steven Anzovin

Hardly anyone, even a writer, spends much time browsing through a dictionary. There are just too many dull entries between the interesting words. But a very few dictionaries make fascinating cover-to-cover reading. One is The Devil's Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce--the essential source book for cynics, a group that must include most people who work with computers. Another is the recently published New Hacker's Dictionary, edited by Eric Raymond (MIT Press, 55 Hayward Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142; 617253-5646; $10.95).

The New Hacker's Dictionaryis nothing less than a lexicon of hackerspeak (also called hackish), the jargon used by those happy few who are obsessed by computers and how to program them. Hackers themselves have been collecting hacker terms and definitions for years from online sources as far afield as Moscow and Australia, and this book is an etymological history of all the major hacker subcultures (such as the warring UNIX factions, the brutally suppressed hacker underground inside Big Blue, the old-timers who still use slang from the glory days of the PDP-10, and so on). I'd go so far as to say that this book is required reading not just for hackers (who'11 be delighted to learn the derivation and alternative usages for their favorite slang) but for anyone who's interested in computers.

Here's a sampling of the more interesting and/or essential words described in The New Hacker's Dictionary (some definitions have been edited for space). bagbiter. A program or piece of hardware that works clumsily or not at all; a programmer or designer (rarely a hacker) who creates such a tool.

computron. The mythical absolute unit of computing power; also, the mythical elementary particle emitted during computing.

crufty. Badly built, overly complex, semiuseless; for example, used to describe despised hardware (such as anything manufactured by IBM) or ancient, semifunctional programs in dead languages like FORTRAN or COBOL.

frobnicate. To fiddle with, as in to make small adjustments to a program just for the fun of it.

hack. Clever code that could be produced only by a hacker; a neat hack is code that even other hackers admire. hack mode. What hackers usually are in when in front of their machines.

hacking run. Extended hacking session; may lead to raster burn.

holy wars. Long-running, emotional, and ultimately unresolvable hacker disputes over fundamental issues no one else cares: about, like what programming language is best, which text editor is more efficient, how many spaces to indent control structures in chunks of code, and so forth.

kluge. Pronounced klooge, sometimes spelled kludge. An ad hoc programming solution to a particular problem, but one that is difficult to understand and work with.

lossage. Loss caused by a bug or failure that is not limited to a single instance; for example, the loss of data during repeated system crashes caused by a serious bug in the operating system. The Macintrash running System 7 is subject to much lossage, as b a PC under Microsloth Windows.

luser. Pronounced like loser. A loser user; used disdainfully by some hackers to describe any nonhacker.

MESS-DOS. Also MESSYDOS, MESS-DOG, and so forth. MS-DOS, so named for its clunky interface and obnoxious limitations.

raster burn. Eye malady hackers get from looking at dirty or out-of-focus monitors during back-to-back hacking runs.

real programmer. Macho programmer who writes codeonly in machine language or assembler, without documentation, and in such an idiosyncratic style that other hackers despair to figure the program out.

wannabee. A would-be hacker; someone given to overusing terms like those in The New Hacker's Dictionary.

Usage of hackerspeak may not qualify you as an authentic member of hackerdom (you have to do some actual hacking for that or risk being branded as a bogus wannabee), but at least you won't risk getting lost following the online threads of real wizards as they swap their heavy magic in talk mode. It's enough to make you quit bit-twiddling and head for the Big Room--the great outdoors.