To hack or not to hack

I was thinking about the word “hacking” recently; not the word as it is traditionally misused in the media (they mean “crackers”), but the word as it traditionally means, as explained in the First Thesis of Geek Activism:

Reclaim the term ‘hacker’. If you tinker with electronics, you are a hacker. If you use things in more ways than intended by the manufacturer, you are a hacker. If you build things out of strange, unexpected parts, you are a hacker. Reclaim the term.

At work, I regularly produce hacks in Moodle to change Moodle’s operational model to match our own business logic. It’s fun and not too unlike those guys in the 50’s and 60’s who would mess with radios and other gadgets to produce toys and gizmos that did far more than the manufacturer intended.

Then I started wondering about other things that can be hacked. If a piece of software can be hacked to do something other than it was intended to, and a programming language can be hacked to introduce expanded functionality, then what other tools and even means of communication can be hacked to expand their usefulness or aesthetic appeal? Can we think of the great jazz improvisationalists as musical hackers? How about J. S. Bach? I, personally, have found fascinating similarities between Bach’s concertos, the piano ragtimes of Scott Joplin, and the hardcore punk sound of Flogging Molly (well, I think they’re fascinating, even though I’m not a music critic or professional by any stretch of the imagination).

So what about language? Can English (or any language, of course, but since English is what I speak, that’s the example I’ll use) be hacked? If so, what does the notion suggest? Are poets and novelists hackers? How would we compare the output of a truly great language hacker as opposed to that of a poor or mediocre one?