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  • Jargon Hacker's Dictionary (Introduction)


    About This File

    This document is a collection of slang terms used by various subcultures
    of computer hackers.  Though some technical material is included for
    background and flavor, it is not a technical dictionary; what we
    describe here is the language hackers use among themselves for fun,
    social communication, and technical debate.

    The `hacker culture' is actually a loosely networked collection of
    subcultures that is nevertheless conscious of 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 35 years old.

    As usual with slang, the special vocabulary of hackers helps hold their
    culture together --- it helps hackers 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, and of inclusion, and of exclusion.

    Among hackers, though, slang has a subtler aspect, paralleled perhaps in
    the slang of jazz musicians and some 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 whole range of altered
    states and problem-solving mental stances basic to high-level hacking
    which don't fit into conventional linguistic reality any better than a
    Coltrane solo or one of Maurits Escher's `trompe l'oeil' compositions
    (Escher is a favorite of hackers), and hacker slang encodes these
    subtleties in many unobvious ways.  As a simple example, take the
    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 right back into the nature of the
    generative processes in program design and asserts something important
    about two different kinds of relationship between the hacker and the
    hack.  Hacker slang is unusually rich in implications of this kind, of
    overtones and undertones that illuminate the hackish psyche.

    But there is more.  Hackers, as a rule, love wordplay and are very
    conscious and inventive in their use of language.  These traits seem to
    be common in young children, but the conformity-enforcing machine we are
    pleased to call an educational system bludgeons them out of most of us
    before adolescence.  Thus, linguistic invention in most subcultures of
    the modern West is a halting and largely 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 the neotenous enjoyment of language-play with the
    discrimination of educated and powerful intelligence.  Further, the
    electronic media which knit them together are fluid, `hot' connections,
    well adapted to both the dissemination of new slang and the ruthless
    culling of weak and superannuated specimens.  The results of this
    process give us perhaps a uniquely intense and accelerated view of
    linguistic evolution in action.

    Hackish 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, and to classify cultures by the preferred context level
    of their languages and art forms.  It is usually claimed that
    low-context communication (characterized by precision, clarity, and
    completeness of self-contained utterances) 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.  What
    then are we to make of hackerdom, which is themed around extremely
    low-context interaction with computers and exhibits primarily
    "low-context" values, but cultivates an almost absurdly high-context
    slang style?

    The intensity and consciousness of hackish invention make a compilation
    of hacker slang a particularly effective window into the surrounding
    culture --- and, in fact, this one is the latest version of an evolving
    compilation called the `Jargon File', maintained by hackers themselves
    for over 15 years.  This one (like its ancestors) is primarily a
    lexicon, but also includes `topic entries' which collect background or
    sidelight information on hacker culture that would be awkward to try to
    subsume under individual entries.

    Though the format is that of a reference volume, it is intended that the
    material be enjoyable to browse.  Even a complete outsider should find
    at least a chuckle on nearly every page, and much that is amusingly
    thought-provoking.  But it is also true that hackers use humorous
    wordplay to make strong, sometimes combative statements about what they
    feel.  Some of these entries reflect the views of opposing sides in
    disputes that have been genuinely passionate; this is deliberate.  We
    have not tried to moderate or pretty up these disputes; rather we have
    attempted to ensure that *everyone's* sacred cows get gored,
    impartially.  Compromise is not particularly a hackish virtue, but the
    honest presentation of divergent viewpoints is.

    The reader with minimal computer background who finds some references
    incomprehensibly technical can safely ignore them.  We have not felt it
    either necessary or desirable to eliminate all such; they, too,
    contribute flavor, and one of this document's major intended audiences
    --- fledgling hackers already partway inside the culture --- will
    benefit from them.

    A selection of longer items of hacker folklore and humor is included in
    {appendix A}.  The `outside' reader's attention is particularly directed
    to {appendix B}, "A Portrait of J. Random Hacker".  {Appendix C} is a
    bibliography of non-technical works which have either influenced or
    described the hacker culture.

    Because hackerdom is an intentional culture (one each individual must
    choose by action to join), one should not be surprised that the line
    between description and influence can become more than a little blurred.
    Earlier versions of the Jargon File have played a central role in
    spreading hacker language and the culture that goes with it to
    successively larger populations, and we hope and expect that this one
    will do likewise.

    credits to Jargon