"Hey teach me hacking man, I want to purchase some damn thing from a online shopping website."
"Man I want to steal his password and block his account, so teach me hacking man."
At times I feel like banging on that person's head. But I can't really expect everyone to know the real meaning because this "stealing or breaking in" meaning has been so prominent and publicized by the media and speakers alike to such an extent that it has become the standard meaning. This is what i get from www.answers.com
(computer science) Use of a computer system without a specific, constructive purpose, or without proper authorization.
which of course is pure crap. Of course initially I too was of the same opinion. Thanks to the good folks of the open source world, I have understood the appropriate meaning of Hacking to a fairly good extent. Good enough to write a blog article about it.
I would define hacking as anything that can be called as "out of the box" thinking. Some of the greatest computer scientists are hackers. The inventors of the 'C' programming language, K&R, they are hackers. The inventor of the WWW - world wide web, Tim Berners Lee is a hacker. They all thought out of the box, did things which people did not percieve as feasible. If the great scientists of physics and chemistry came out with inventions, then their engineering counterparts, whom I would call "Hackers" came out with "Hacks". These were the hacks which revolutionized the computer world. So hacking is not breaking into some computer system illegally, but hacking to achieve things which people think are impossible with the current scheme of things.
A simplest example of hack would be improving one of your simplest C programs. Any minor tweak to an algorithm which would improve its time/space complexity would be hack. If you can reduce a few lines from a particular code and yet achieve the same results then that is a hack. In all these cases you are just improving the current system or the current scheme of things. Now that is hacking.
Of course if you like the word very much the any improvement that you make can be called as hack, but the "hack value" associated with that hack would be very small. And hacking is not just limited to the world of computer science. It extends to any branch of engneering or technology. Here are 2 examples from non computer science field which I came across in an awesome website www.hackaday.com (A must see for every person who has the remotest relation with technology and has a desire to learn)
Example 1: A electronic communication hack:
A person had hacked into the circuitry of his Motorola cell phone to interpret the text messages (SMS) that he received as commands and execute a corresponding action. He had attached an extra chip which would read the message and and send out appropriate commands to the attached devices. This whole set up was placed in his house with quite a few electronic and electrical attached to this, and all that he would do control these devices was to send a text message to his cell phone at home. The rest was taken care by the "hack"
Example 2: Even more away from computers - A mechanical hack:
We all are familiar about the flames coming from the exhaust of super bikes. They are indeed costly and not all of us can afford those, but nevertheless the flames are something we would surely like to have. Now this guy came up with an idea, or rather a hack, to get flames from the exhaust in any damn bike. He had added a particular liquid (a compound containing nitrogen) to the fuel. He then placed a spark plug in the exhaust pipe and synced its ignition with the main spark plug used in the ICE. The additional liquid would come out without being burnt and when passing through the exhaust pipe it would catch a spark and result in a flame. So even you travel at a speed of 20kmph you can have flames from the exhaust.
These examples will surely drive the meaning of hacking that I am trying to present here. On the contrary, this breaking into system illegally or stealing passwords and related things are termed as "Cracking". This also involves intelligence, but instead of making the current system more usable, these bank on the weakness and vulnerabilities of the current system and make them unsafe and less usable.
So people lets hack this world, just to make it a better world. Hacking is research and a hacking bent of mind is something to be cherished and respected. Hackers are scientists who can think new and innovate and hence improve the current technologies. So lets all become scientists.. err.. sorry.. "Hackers".