That’s not what they called themselves. They didn’t call themselves `hackers’, either, or anything in particular; the sobriquet `Real Programmer’ wasn’t coined until after 1980, retrospectively by one of their own. But from 1945 onward, the technology of computing attracted many of the world’s brightest and most creative minds. From Eckert and Mauchly’s first ENIAC computer onward there was a more or less continuous and self-conscious technical culture of enthusiast programmers, people who built and played with software for fun.
The Real Programmers typically came out of engineering or physics backgrounds. They were often amateur-radio hobbyists. They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten.
From the end of World War II to the early 1970s, in the great days of batch processing and the “big iron” mainframes, the Real Programmers were the dominant technical culture in computing. A few pieces of revered hacker folklore date from this era, including various lists of Murphy’s Laws and the mock-German “Blinkenlights” poster that still graces many computer rooms.
Some people who grew up in the `Real Programmer’ culture remained active into the 1990s and even past the turn of the 21st century. Seymour Cray, designer of the Cray line of supercomputers, was among the greatest. He is said once to have toggled an entire operating system of his own design into a computer of his own design through its front-panel switches. In octal. Without an error. And it worked. Real Programmer macho supremo.
The `Real Programmer’ culture, though, was heavily associated with batch (and especially batch scientific) computing. It was eventually eclipsed by the rise of interactive computing, the universities, and the networks. These gave birth to another engineering tradition that, eventually, would evolve into today’s open-source hacker culture.
I explore the origins of the hacker culture, including prehistory among the Real Programmers, the glory days of the MIT hackers, and how the early ARPAnet nurtured the first network nation. I describe the early rise and eventual stagnation of Unix, the new hope from Finland, and how `the last true hacker’ became the next generation’s patriarch. I sketch the way Linux and the mainstreaming of the Internet brought the hacker culture from the fringes of public consciousness to its current prominence.
You might not consider hackers to be a tribe apart, but I guarantee you that many — if not most — hackers themselves do. Eric S. Raymond’s “A Brief History of Hackerdom,” whose first draft dates to 1992, contains a litany of descriptions that speak to this:
They wore white socks and polyester shirts and ties and thick glasses and coded in machine language and assembler and FORTRAN and half a dozen ancient languages now forgotten .…
The mainstream of hackerdom, (dis)organized around the Internet and by now largely identified with the Unix technical culture, didn’t care about the commercial services. These hackers wanted better tools and more Internet ….
[I]nstead of remaining in isolated small groups each developing their own ephemeral local cultures, they discovered (or re-invented) themselves as a networked tribe.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m thrilled to bits that every day the power to translate pure thought into actions that ripple across the world merely by the virtue of being phrased correctly draws nearer and nearer to the hands of every person alive. I’m even more delighted that every day more and more people, some very similar to me and others very different, join the chorus of Those Who Speak With Machines.
But I fear for my people, the “weird nerds,” and I think I have good reason to. Brain-computer interfaces are coming, and what will happen to the weird nerds when we can no longer disguise our weirdness with silence?
The way I thought you used a dictionary was that you looked up words you’ve never heard of, or whose sense you’re unsure of. You would never look up an ordinary word — like example, or sport, or magic — because all you’ll learn is what it means, and that you already know.
The New Oxford American dictionary, by the way, is not like singularly bad. Google’s dictionary, the modern Merriam-Webster, the dictionary at dictionary.com: they’re all like this. They’re all a chore to read. There’s no play, no delight in the language. The definitions are these desiccated little husks of technocratic meaningese, as if a word were no more than its coordinates in semantic space.
John McPhee’s secret weapon
John McPhee — one the great American writers of nonfiction, almost peerless as a prose stylist — once wrote an essay for the New Yorker about his process called “Draft #4.” He explains that for him, draft #4 is the draft after the painstaking labor of creation is done, when all that’s left is to punch up the language, to replace shopworn words and phrases with stuff that sings.
The way you do it, he says, is “you draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity.” You go looking for le mot juste.
“Your destination is the dictionary,” he writes:
Suppose you sense an opportunity beyond the word “intention.” You read the dictionary’s thesaurian list of synonyms: “intention, intent, purpose, design, aim, end, object, objective, goal.” But the dictionary doesn’t let it go at that. It goes on to tell you the differences all the way down the line — how each listed word differs from all the others. Some dictionaries keep themselves trim by just listing synonyms and not going on to make distinctions. You want the first kind, in which you are not just getting a list of words; you are being told the differences in their hues, as if you were looking at the stripes in an awning, each of a subtly different green.
As Blaze Miskulin puts it below, “English is a mutt. And a slut. It was born of the random fucking of multiple cultures, languages, and dialects, and it will hop in bed with any language that tickles its fancy. It’a also a thief. English will blatantly steal any word or phrase that it finds interesting. We like it? Fuck it, it’s English, now.”
I made a minor statement in another post, and I got a reply that struck me as rather odd—both in its content and its somewhat aggressive tone.
I made the comment that English isn’t easy for foreigners to learn, and gave an example of phrasal verbs to illustrate my point. The response was… odd.
So, I thought I would share my experience and insight on EFL (English as a Foreign Language) with the O-Deck at large.
The thing that most native English speakers don’t understand is that English isn’t a single language in the way that French, German, and Chinese are. Each of those have a very long history and a high degree of isolation (German maybe less than the others, but still significant).
In the course of my teaching, I often have the opportunity to explain the basic history of English. This is usually prompted by a situation where I have to explain that “well… this word is actually French, and that word is Latin, and we often use them in combination with this other word that comes from German…”
The simplest way I can explain it is that English is the bastard child of a bastard child. There are linguistic historians out there who can explain the details far better than I could ever hope to, but it boils down to this: English is a mutt. And a slut. It was born of the random fucking of multiple cultures, languages, and dialects, and it will hop in bed with any language that tickles its fancy.
It’a also a theif. English will blatantly steal any word or phrase that it finds interesting. We like it? Fuck it, it’s English, now.
I express this in rude terms (something English is excelent for, by the way), but I want to stress that this is one of the things I absolutely *love* about English. And I believe that this is one of the most significant reasons that it has become the lingua franca for the world. French used to be the universal language. But the French became too wrapped up in preserving the “purity” of their language. The world doesn’t want a “pure” language; it wants a slut that accepts any and all comers.
From the Other Side
For about 25 years before coming to China, my work and play revolved around English. I was a competitive speaker, a performer, a speech and drama coach, a published author, a copywriter, an editor, and more. I had a mastery of the English language. And then I came to China and started teaching it to people for whom it was not their mother tongue. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was brought down a few pegs. I was suddenly confronted with people for whom the very basis of the language was utterly alien. Culture guides language, language guides culture and thought.
For example: In which direction does time move?
Ask anyone who speaks a European language, and they will say “Forward, (of course!)”. Things are “ahead of you” or “behind you”. You “move forward” or “go back”. You “look ahead” and “look back”. We have “foresight” and “hindsight”.
In Chinese, time moves down. In Chinese, “next week” is “down one week” (xia ge xing qi —下个星期). Tomorrow, however, is “bright day” (ming tian—明天).
Chinese language “thinks” in a very different way from English—and most European languages.
Put Down the Dictionary
One of the most frustrating things I have to deal with is “the dictionary”. In a recent Forbes article, Amelia Friedman recounted this typical interaction with undergraduates:
We don’t need to be bilingual because we already have the skills we need in the global marketplace.
We know how to use Google Translate
, we’ve traveled abroad in college, and we watch Anderson Cooper at least twice per week.
The most common thing I say in my classes is “Put down the dictionary!” I don’t care how advanced you think your “universal translator” is… it’s wrong. I can’t count the number of times I’ve had someone thrust their phone in my face, open to the dictionary app, saying “But the dictionary says…” only for me to respond: “The dictionary is wrong. If you say that in America (England, Australia, Anywhere), nobody will understand you.”
N.B. Sometimes it’s “amazo-fucking wrong”.
Turn Up, Turn Down, Turn In, Turn Out
One of the areas where communication breaks down is phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs ( as I noted in my previous post) are real and integral parts of the English language. They are also one example of how English is a difficult language to truly learn.
In the thread that spawned this post, the commenter referred to phrasal verbs as “crazy colloquialisms”. This is a serious misunderstanding of the English language (and, frankly, language in general)
A phrasal verb is when multiple words (a phrase) combine to mean something different from the meanings of the individual words. English isn’t unique in this, but it’s still a factor that makes English difficult to understand.
Phrasal verbs are not something that is “outside” common speech. They are inherent English phrases which use words in ways which do not fall within the expected parameters. They are, quite frankly, the way we speak.
No matter where you go in the world, you will turn in reports, look up information, ask outpretty women, call in sick, turn down invitations, and run out of beer (Goddammit! Who drank all the beer?!)
That’s a Horse of a Different Color
Idioms: It’s a love-hate relationship. I absolutely love idioms. Not as much as I love colloquialisms (look down yonder), but they make me as happy as a pig in shit.
On the other hand… teaching them as EFL is… well… problematic (to put it politely). While some idioms can be explained, the vast majority of them are simply “common cultural knowledge”. I will say, with authority and conviction: “This phrase means X. I don’t know why, don’t bother asking”.
This is, of course, true of any language. The first time someone said “ma ma hu hu” to me, I had no clue what they were saying. Then a “helpful” (read: snarky asshole) co-worker translated for me. It means… “horse horse tiger tiger”. Ummm…. what?? “Just so-so”. Not a single person I have asked (all native speakers) has been able to explain to me why “horse horse tiger tiger” means “Just so-so”. It’s just an idiom.
As My Granpa Used to Say…
Colloquialisms are, I think, the best part of English. I loves me some local sayings.
For those who don’t know, a colloquialism is a “colorful saying”. They are frequently regional or local. Unlike slang (see down yonder), colloquialisms have a long lifespan—as evidenced by the fact that they are commonly preceded by the phrase “As my grandpa used to say…”
While colloquialisms can nestle into any grammatical corner, the most common (and most fun) fall into the range of metaphors and similes.
“He’s as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.”
The one I remember from my dad was “She’s five-foot tall and three axe-handles wide” (she’s short and fat).
Because they are regional or local, even native speakers won’t always understand colloquialisms. I ran into that somewhat frequently when I was living in Texas and Virginia (I’m a Wisconsin boy). But then… they often didn’t understand what I was saying.
Between native speakers, colloquialisms are either easy to figure out (there’s enough shared culture) or easily identified as colloquialisms—at which point we just say “What the fuck does that mean?”
Foreigners, however, frequently lack an inherent “feeling” for the language that lets them know that a set of words should not be taken literally. And they certainly don’t have the cultural and regional understanding to correctly interpret what’s being said.
Slang. Oh gods… slang. How do I hate thee? Let me count the ways.
Slang is the bane of anyone trying to teach EFL.
One of the core intents of slang is to make itself unintelligable to “old people” and “uncool people”. So… basically anyone who deals with language in an international context.
Slang has a half-life shorter than most transuranic elements.
I don’t teach slang. I will often refer to slang—but almost always to show how it causes breakdowns in communication, and shouldn’t be used.
My example: At a previous job (selling boats) I did a photoshoot. 3 models volunteered their time in exchange for copies of the photos (TFP; Time for Print (that’s jargon)). After weeding out the bad shots, I sent copies of the photos to the models. I also posted copies online. One of the models commented on a photo of hers with this: “That makes my legs look sick!”
I was taken aback. I thought the photo was quite good and showed her in a positive light. Why was she saying that it made her look ill or deformed? I e-mailed another one of the models and asked her what I had done wrong. She replied: “Sick means really good”.
That’s when I knew I was officially “old”.
The First Shall Be Last, and the Simple Shall Be Complex
Nothing has advanced my understanding of English more than spending 3 years teaching it to Chinese students.
You think you know English? Okay… Find a non-European who is just learning English and try to explain these words to them:
Explain the difference between “a”[uh] and “a”[ay].
“I have [uh] pencil.”
“I have [ay] pencil.”
To Wrap It Up…
One of the things I stress to my students is that language is not words; language is ideas. I loves me some colloquialisms, but I will get down-right violent about the complete wrongness of using “literally” to mean “figuratively”. It’s not about the words, it’s about the ideas.
Language isn’t about rules or definitions any of the shit the textbooks insist is ultra-important. Langauge is about communicating. There are a bazillion tools out there to teach people vocabulary and grammar and all that other textbook stuff.
He didn’t just use the lazy singular dash (“-”) as a pause between his thoughts, or even the more time-consuming double-dash (“–”). Nope. This man used a proper em dash.
That is, the kind that required him to hold down the dash button on his iPhone for that extra second, until the “—” appeared, then choose it from among three options. I don’t remember what his messages actually said. But he obviously really liked me.
I’m a writer; it’s natural I’d have a thing for grammar. But these days, it’s as if our punctuation is on steroids.