Setting Orange, the 16 day of Bureaucracy in the YOLD 3167 (22).

Originally written in 1993. Only slighted updated to correct some links.

The Scriptures of Hackerdom

The Computer's Impact on Writing in the Hacker Culture

by MC


Just why Michael Cardell was wandering around in building B in the middle of the night is a matter that he would find difficult to explain. Some things are not spoken. If you were like the people Michael Cardell was coming to know and befriend in this, his freshman year at the Linköping university in the summer of 1991, no explanation would be required. (Thanks to Steven Levy for this one, Levy 84:3)

Michael, or MC as he would be known, was simply exploring. He wanted to know how things look liked beneath the surface --- something he had in common with the people he would meet through this expedition of his.

Down there in the cellar of the Linköping university, when MC walked right into a room known to insiders as PUL17, he met the members of a strange club called Lysator.

MC was proud of his knowledge of computers and he used to think of himself as something of a programmer virtuoso. However, when he met the Lysator members he realized how little he had grokked about Things that Matter. These people were real computer hackers, and MC found himself merely a hacker wannabe. At that moment MC was enlightened. He decided to search for his True Hacker Nature --- and thus he entered his hacker larval stage.

If you ask him now, he will tell you that he is out of larval stage, but you be the judge --- check out some hacks.

This text --- An Introduction

This text is the result of a couple of years among hackers and as a member of hackerdom --- the hacker culture. It is a modest try to collect some of my thoughts about the cultural artefacts of hackerdom: texts, songs, poems and, of course, programs. The aims in this text is to show the reader that there is a special hacker style of writing, both grammatically, typographically and with regard of contents. I will show both a style of writing and a hackerish genre.

Many modern books about the impact of computers on writing focuses on phenomena such as hypertext and interactivity, but there are more ways than these that the computer has affected writing. In fact, I think that neither hypertext nor interactivity is a new phenomenon in literature.

Hypertext has existed, in a more or less explicit form, since the invention of the index, the table of contents, the footnootes in the Oxford system et cetera, et cetera. There has always been links to other texts from any other text. The computer and the hypertext program, such as the one you might be using right now, is just a tool to follow the links. It does not create them.

The same is true for interactivity. Even in the days of the tribal community when the storyteller told the members of the tribe ancient stories, there was interactivity; the listeners could ask questions or even join in in the telling of the story. Even school children play with a pen and paper, where they write a full sentence, fold the paper and someone else continues --- also true interactivity.

In this text, however, I am going to look at people who are more or less living through computers, and whose main way of communicating has been writing on the computer since the late 1960s. These people has been formed by the computer as much as the computer, and its software, has been formed by them. The writing of hackers is computerized writing, in many ways.

The text is laid out in the following way. First, I am going to discuss what a hacker is. Then I will look briefly at the history of hackers to set the texts I will discuss later in context. I will then proceed to look at hacker language and writing and finally give commented examples on the scriptures of hackerdom. The main part of this text can be said to be an introduction to the tradition of hackerish writing.

What Is a Hacker?

"What's a hacker? This is kind of like asking a Zen Buddhist 'What is Zen?', or asking Louis Armstrong 'What is jazz?'", Jef Poskanzer, in alt.hackers FAQ.

First, I have to point out that a hacker is not a criminal. The word has been overly misused by all sorts of media through the years, mainly the eighties and into the nineties. In fact, as I am writing this, two messages are on their way to Swedish TV news programs, in which I complain about their use of the word.

My own etymological speculation about this habit of misusing the word is that the whole thing comes down to a misunderstanding. I think journalists during the early eighties might have stumbled on a piece of news-to-be involving illegal access to computers. These journalists then, erroneoussly (sp?), assumed that one is bound to be very knowledgable about computers, in fact be a computer hacker, to crack a computer security system. Later, even less knowledgable journalists assumed that "computer hacker" was equivalent with "computer criminal" and subsequently started to misuse the word.

A real hacker, as opposed to the vulgarized computer criminal, can be said to be an artist, of a sort, with the computer as his medium. He, because it is usually a male, knows a lot about what to do to make the computer work the way he want it to --- he tries the limits of the hardware, or, if he is a hardware hacker, tries to expand it beyond the limits of the parts he uses.

This is what the Jargon File has to say about hacker:

[originally, someone who makes furniture with an axe] n. 1 A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary. 2. One who programs enthusiastically (even obsessively) or who enjoys programming rather than just theorizing about programming. 3. A person capable of appreciating hack value. 4. A person who is good at programing quickly. 5. An expert at a particular program, or one who frequently does work using it or on it; as in `a Unix hacker'. (Definitions 1 through 5 are correlated, and people who fit them congregate.) 6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example. 7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations. 8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. See cracker.

(Raymond 91:191--192)

As you can see from this definition, a hacker is not just any computer programmer. In fact, many computer programmers would be insulted if they would be called hackers. And, of course, many hackers would also be offended if you would go about calling button-downed, tie-wearing codegrinders hackers. Not even all computer scientists are hackers --- in fact, some of them are working to stop the spreading of hackerdom.

A true hacker is generally able to appreciate what is called "hack value", a mysterious entity found in great works of art, great theories, workmanship, music and, of course, computer programs. Hack value can also be found in jokes, about which I will tell you more later.

There are many reports on hackers, most of them somewhat negative. The best known are Sherry Turkle's chapter on hackers in The Second Self, the article "The Hacker Papers" in Psychology Today and Joseph Weizenbaum's description of what he calls "computer bums" (not "bum" in the British sense, mind you) in his Computers and Human Reason.

Then there is the more or less internal JARGON.TXT which has been expanded, rewritten and published on paper by Eric S. Raymond as The New Hacker's Dictionary and the rather well-written Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution by Steven Levy. There is also a rather new Swedish Ph.D. thesis on would-be-hackers by Jörgen Nissen, called Pojkarna vid datorn. Another Swedish Ph.D. thesis, allegedly dealing with the language of would-be-hackers, called Det är månen att nå..., by Eva Ersson, was read by me, but since I could not understand what the thesis has to do with the hacker use of language, it will simply be included in the bibliography, but not actually used in the text.

A Brief History of Hacking

"Computer power to the people! Down with cybercrud!", Ted Nelson in Computer Lib.

The hacker culture goes back at least as far as the 1950s. The Technical Model Railroad Club (TMRC) at Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT) is by now mythologically acclaimed to be the cradle of hackerdom. The legendary members of the TMRC in the 1950s came to be the first generation of canonical hackers. (This whole section will be largely based on Levy 84.)

However, hackers have been around earlier than the members of TMRC. Every man and woman that dedicate themselves fully to what they are doing could be called hackers, even though what they are doing has nothing to do with computers. You can hack music, like the great J.S. Bach; you can hack archery or the art of serving tea, as in the Japanese arts --- you can hack just about anything that somehow involves skill and dedication.

Traditionally, the members of the TMRC was divided in two; those that enjoyed making small models of locomotives, trains and landscapes; and then the members who kept their heads below the model railroad table, where all the Real Gear was hiding. Under the table you would find all the relays, circuits and such, that made sure a certain train was on track and that it was going in the right direction. The members under the table were the Signals and Power group; they were the TMRC hackers.

Just like modern-day hackers, the TMRC hackers enjoyed exploring systems unknown to them or expanding known systems into the unknown. This is just what they did to the model railroad in the TMRC headquarters. Such an endevour sometimes demand the use of a new language; a jargon or slang that at the same time ties to group together and connotates precise meaning among its speakers. That is exactly what happened. In fact, the TMRC hacker slang went so far the member Peter Samson compiled a TMRC Dictionary.

I am convinced there were other people in the world with the same goal in life as the more technical of the TMRC members. I would not be very surprised to find groups within the ham radio culture with the same fondness of The Hack. These people, too, had their own languages. This, that there are other groups that should be placed on the border of hackerdom, is something I think most scholars or journalistis interesteded in hackerdom have failed to mention.

Indeed, the first embryo of the Jargon File was not done at MIT. Instead, it was compiled at Stanford, which seem to have developed a similar culture of computer hackers at the same time MIT did.

The culture of the Signals and Power group at TMRC was composed out of curious people who liked challenges. Of course, checking out basements, attics, elevator shafts and things like that as well as sending out Midnight Requisitioning Committees to get things that was missing from the model railroad was the standard procedure. This was a great help in finding out that there was a little used Lincoln TX-0 computer in the building known as the "Tech Square" at MIT campus.

The TX-0 computer was utterly different from other computers of its time --- it was interactive. The computer was not, unlike the other campus computers, guarded by an unholy priesthood of operators, so the hackers could roam almost freely on the machine, when the ordinary lusers didn't show up.

Later MIT was given a Digital PDP-1 from DEC and the culture of TX-0 hackers more or less moved to the new machine instead. During this time, professor John McCarthy was trying to create a new discipline of research, Artificial Intelligence. Most of the TX-0 hackers showed up on his first AI course and many were engaged in his attempt to make computers play chess.

Subsequently, when the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory was created by McCarthy, most hackers were somehow engaged in the lab and in Project MAC, which was an AI project founded by the US Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA).

New machines kept coming and the hackers came to love the machines from Digital Equipment (DEC) and especially the PDP-6 and later the PDP-10. They even wrote their own operating system for the machines, the famous Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS). Because of this intimate use with DEC machines, some of the hacker slang has been formed by instruction mnemnomics for DEC computers and mainly the PDP-10.

Allready in the 50s, John McCarthy had started on a project to create a new programming language, based on lambda calculus. He called the language Lisp, and it came to be one of the hacker languages of choice. Tom Knight, a noted MIT hacker even designed a computer that ran Lisp code straight from the hardware, the Lisp Machine. This was the favourite hacker "personal machine". Of course, words from Lisp and the Lisp Machine has also been borrowed and overgeneralized in the hacker slang.

With the event of ARPANET, but also by travel, people from simultaneous hacker cultures came to meet and interact. The hacker slang, as it was developed at MIT and Stanford, grew larger and merged with similar slangs at other sites of the net. The later use of the USENET News system and mailing lists, with the help of the UUCP package for transfer, spread the hacker style of speech and writing even further.

Hacker Writing

"People will program for love!", RMS.

Style and Language

The pioneering scholar Jay David Bolter considers the computer a new "writing space", which is entirely different from the earlier spaces, such as print on paper, handwriting on paper, et cetera. In his book, Bolter focuses on the new interactivity of the electronic text, something I will not focus on here, but he also writes:

And in all its various uses, the computer is best understood as a new technology for writing. Even computer programming is a kind of writing. Programming languages (like PASCAL [sic!] or C) constitute a restricted and yet powerful mode of communication, a mode based on imperative sentences and the unambigous use of symbols. /.../ And unlike natural languages, computer language is made to be written down: it belongs on the page or the computer screen. /.../ Computer programs are by definition electronic texts... /.../ All computing is reading and writing.

(Bolter: 91:9--10)

I think that the hacker way of writing has been formed through the view of computer programs as texts. The writing on the computer has formed the hacker culture so that even speech has changed to model computerized writing.

Slang is commonly used to tight a group of people together, regardless of the group members. There is biker slang, rock'n roll slang and, of course, hacker slang. Hacker slang is known to the insiders as "Hackerish", which is not the same as the jargon used by programmers and hardware experts in the computer field, although the vocubularies sometimes do overlap. Sherry Turkle in The Second Self mentions, very briefly, that

[o]ne of the ways groups mark and protect their boundaries is through the use of language. Engineers develop a language of their own, a jargon. It is a source of pleasure, but also of alienation from non-engineers...

(Turkle 84:207)

This is, as mentioned above, very true about hackers. There has, since the days of the TMRC (also above) been a guide to the special slang used by the group, the TMRC Dictionary. (See Raymond 91:422 for a discussion on the relation between this dictionary and the original Stanford Jargon File) It was first a slang rather limited to the model railroad club, but when several of the members moved on to hack on the new Lincoln TX-0 computer, and later the Digital PDP-1, the slang, so to speak, moved with them. Since then, the slang has been developed to include more and more computer related terms and has grown in originality.

There has been some confusion about Hackerish, the hacker slang, because it has been called "jargon" for many years. This is due because of a collection of hackerish words used at Stanford was called the "jargon" dictionary. Later, when the dictionary evolved into the Jargon File, the wording had stuck. It is, nevertheless, a slang.

Karla Jennings writes about what she calls CompuSpeak, which I identify as Hackerish, and says that computer slang is based on "wordplay bordering on the pathological". (Jennings 90:99) I do not quite agree about the pathological part, but there is indeed a truth in that hackers love to play with words.

The hacker Eric Raymond confirms this in The New Hacker's Dictionary. In a section where he tries to explain how jargon, or well, slang, is constructed, he points out certain traits of Hackerish. Verb doubling is often used, both in speech and in writing. An example of verb doubling might look like this:

This EMACS talk mode doesn't recognize my entry in /etc/utmp. Lose, lose!

Soundalike slang, such as "Dirty Genitals" for "Data General" is also common and is considered particularly good if it includes other jargon words, such as "Marginal Hacks Hall" for the Computer Science building at Stanford, Margaret Jacks Hall.

Overgeneralization is also common in Hackerish. Computer related words tend to be used in a wider context, such as "Control S, I have something to say!", for "I have to interrupt to add something to the subject" or "This obviousity is so trivial it's automagically swapped out when I'm trying to dump core on J. Random Luser." Amuse yourself by trying to figure out what this might mean and then read the answer. Indeed, a lot of the humour in hacker speech and writing is based on this overgeneralization. (See below.)

Raymond points out that form-versus-content langauge jokes are very common in hacker writing. Examples are deliberately misspelling "wrong" "worng", telling someone of a writing mistake by writing "incorrectspa cing", et cetera.

Most of these simple rules for jargon construction are best seen via electronic media such as USENET News and mailing lists. To get an idea about what to write and what not to write through these media, you can refer to A Primer on How to Work With the USENET Community

Hackerish Genre?

I think there is a special hackerish genre in writing. Obviously, most of the texts of hackerdom somehow deal with computers and the culture hackers have built around these marvellous machines. This cannot be unique of hackerdom; to write about what is central in the culture is something everyone does.

However, there are several ways one can look at computers; I am not trying to put every piece of writing dealing with computers in one genre. I do not consider technical manuals very hackerish, nor do I consider the recent media hype about computer networks particularly hackerish.

What is it, then, that makes hackerish texts hackerish? Besides from the peculiar style of hackerish writing, which I have been going through above, there are certain traits that are common to most hackerish texts; first, most of the hackerish texts I have encountered are some form of computer parody. Many, even the non-parody works I have seen, also use a hacker in-joke, the HHOS (Ha Ha, Only Serious).

HHOS is a very special kind of joke that, however, is not unique to hackerdom. It is applied especially to parodies and ironic jokes that, however absurd, is not entirely meant as a joke. In fact, according to ESR (see Raymond 91:189) hackerdom in its entirety is sometimes considered an HHOS by hackers --- you are not supposed to take it too lightly and not to seriously.

For instance, when ESR himself speak of "divine foolery" when he describes the act of hacking in Loginataka he is, in my view, saying HHOS. The same goes for all the talk about magic in hackerish texts --- there is magic involved, but it is a mistake too admit it openly in this society of ours, hence a HHOS.

The texts I have inlcuded below are all spoofs or parodies. Some of them, if not all, use the HHOS "joke". In the list about what Real Programmers do, there is a lot of serious advice among the jokes. The same goes for the Loginataka, the Jargon File, HAKMEM and all the songs, short-stories and comics I have included.

Consider this an introduction to the texts below, and read along!

The Scriptures of Hackerdom

"Snoids are more fun than duckies!", Marc "MRC" Crispin in Software Wars.

Introductionary Texts

There are a couple of more or less introductionary texts making their way through hackerdom. Some of them are mostly directed at would-be-hackers that might need guidance into the new culture. Some are parodies on the programmer profession.

One example of the latter is Real Programmers Don't Write Specs.

ESR's Loginataka --- A Dialogue between a Guru and a Newbie, on the other hand, is more directed to would-be-hackers that would like to turn into Unix Wizards. In this masterly written sutra, the newbie is guided through the secrets of wizardhood.

There is also The Story of Mel, a Real Programmer, which is an ode to a profession that has changed a lot since Mel's time. It is both a parody and a serious accusation against the people that made much of the magic go away. It is an example of HHOS.

Dictionaries and Encyclopedias

As I have mentioned before, the Jargon File is a dictionary of hackerish expressions and also somewhat of an hacker encyclopedia. It was this text that largely inspired me to write this essay.

TNHD, as the Jargon File is sometimes called, is also aimed at newbies, but is of course also used as a reference for old-timers. However, the file is not merely a collection of hackerish words and expression; it also suggests future use. There is no sharp border between the file and the actual use of language as to which affects which.

Another famous text is HAKMEM, the hacks memo, which is a collection of rather useful facts concerning hacking, mathematics and a lot of other fields. Most of the entries, however, are more or less trivia and considered humorous by hackers.

Songs, Plays and Short-stories

There is a tradition of singing and songwriting within the hacker culture, that goes back a long time. Most of the songs are spoofs of other, mainstream, works. Some, however are original in work. The rather famous hacker RMS (Richard Stallman) is also known as a singer. Try listening to The Hack Song.

A Swedish hacker song, based on a popular song by Michael B. Tretow, is Det jättehäftiga hacket, by Per Lindberg, known to the hacker community as TMP or TMPSA. I am not encouraging people with no knowledge of Swedish to follow the above link.

Another song, American this time, is called Alice's PDP-10. It was written by SRA [Update in 2003: SRA is identified as Rob Austein. Thanks SRA!]. The text linked here is the story of an entire movement to stop Digital from doing Bad Things. It is followed by the song, or perhaps excerpts from it.

There are a special tradition of songs and short-stories that might be said to be on the border of hackerdom. These songs concerns the MUD community that dwells in large multi-user dungeons all over the net. Ring Their Bells is a typical hack'n slash song from a MUD such as the ones I mentioned above. These songs tend to be rather horrific, in several ways.

As I have been writing before, parodies on large films and other works of art are common in hackerdom. MRC's (Marc Crispin) Software Wars is a perfect example of a spoof of a Star Wars film. Other spoofs of Star Wars include DEC Wars and ESR's UNIX Wars.

There has also been more or less real plays in the history of hackerish texts; Tony in RH20 Land by Anthony Wachs is a good example of these. It is written to express Tony's aversion against the RH20 disk controller and it is a very creatively written complaint, I must say.


There is a great tradition of HHOS (see above) tests in the hacker culture. Two such tests are The Unofficial MIT Nerd Test and The Hacker Purity Test. If you score high on anyone of these tests, you may feel free to call yourself a hacker.


There are several hacker comics. The most known ones include The Crunchly Saga, by GLS, which is included in the dead-tree version of TNHD. In TNHD another comic, CPU Wars, by Chas Andres, is mentioned as large-format comic from 1979. It was a rather transparent allegory about the terrible IPM (Impossible to Program Machines) corporation which fought against HEC (Human Engineered Computers). (Raymond 91:109) I have not been able to find any of these comics or, for that matter, any other hacker comics on the net. If you are in the possession of graphic files, please mail me and tell me where I can find them.


Electronic texts that remains unpublished in other media are given as Universal Resource Locators (URL). URLs containing only a filename are referring back to this document, which can be found on the World Wide Web as