The Jargon File and Crunchly Cartoons – Hacker Humor from the Early Days

With only a few days left until hackNY’s Student Hackathon, we’d like to celebrate some Hacker History and take a deeper look at The Jargon File.

For those unfamiliar with this particular piece of hacker history, the Jargon File is a repository of hacker slang and culture from 1975 onward. It features some technical information for context’s sake, but its focus is the language hackers use amongst themselves for fun, social communication and technical debate.

In 1983, The Jargon File (also known as simply ‘the File’) was edited by Guy Steele and published in print as The Hacker’s Dictionary. Steele’s contributions were not limited to editing, as he also injected his own brand of hacker humor in the form of the “Crunchly” comic series, which he penned under his nickname, “The Great Quux.”


Wait, Washing Machines?

The 19-part Crunchly series offered visual aids to support the File’s descriptions, shedding light on the hacking definitions of seemingly commonplace terms.  Just take this entry on washing machines:

According to the Jargon file, ‘washing machine’ refers to “Old-style 14-inch hard disks in floor-standing cabinets. So called because of the size of the cabinet and the ‘top-loading’ access to the media packs — and, of course, they were always set on ‘spin cycle’. The washing-machine idiom transcends language barriers; it is even used in Russian hacker jargon.”


Crunchly Gets FLUSHED

So, now that you’ve been enlightened about the true nature of washing machines, let’s move on to something else. How about flush?

Well, according to the file, “Flush was standard ITS terminology for aborting an output operation; one spoke of the text that would have been printed, but was not, as having been flushed.” As you can see, when the login attempt was aborted, Crunchly got ‘flushed.’

The great thing about the Crunchly series is that it takes something that seems dull to some–a dictionary of hacker lingo- and injects humor to lighten the mood and make a dense subject far more accessible.

Computing has come a long way since the 1970s and thanks to the Jargon File, the early days have been preserved. If you want to see more Crunchly Cartoons and the Jargon file, then look here to relive hacking days of yore. Let us know –What are your favorites?

Dan Gauss
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