Words in the News


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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

News broke this week that a young Tory MP described as a ‘rising star’ in her party had hacked the website of one of Labour’s most senior politicians, Harriet Harman. The incident dates back to 2008, long before Kemi Badenoch was elected to Parliament, and it was the MP herself who revealed the hack, adding that she had accessed Ms Harman’s website by dint of simply guessing that her username and password consisted of her first and second names. She then posted a story that mischievously suggested Ms Harman was supporting the Conservative Boris Johnson in the election for London Mayor.

Ms Badenoch has apologized and the apology has been accepted, and there the matter will probably rest, even though others have been prosecuted and convicted for equally trivial offences. In the light of ongoing revelations about the behaviour of social media companies and those who buy our data from them, it’s surely no bad thing that there are tech-savvy politicians like Ms Badenoch to hold them to account.

Hack is an ancient word of West Germanic origin, related to Dutch ‘hakken’ and German ‘hacken’. It has a multitude of meanings, both verb and noun, as well as numerous derivatives. Many of them have to do with chopping or hitting roughly, or actions associated with that idea, such as coughing persistently or changing and spoiling a piece of writing. Other meanings, such as those relating to horseriding or the ones that refer to people who do boring or substandard work for money seem to come from a completely different root, the district of Hackney, now in urban north-east London but at one time a semirural area where horses were raised for hire. These horses for general use became known early on as hacks, leading eventually to all the other related meanings. It’s not clear whether computer hackers are so called because they break roughly into other people’s computers, or because they are (or were) hacks in the ‘person for hire’ sense.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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