I've blogged before about the etymology of the word "phreak" but my friend Gabriella Coleman recently asked for more detail. Here's what I know, based on documents I've unearthed as well as interviews with phone phreaks who were playing with the phone network as far back as 1961:
- At first, they really didn't have a name. The original phone phreaks who go back to the early 1960s didn't call themselves phone phreaks. In fact, they didn't really call themselves much of anything at all. With few exceptions there wasn't really even a "they" -- they were mostly individuals operating in isolation, or with one or two buddies.
- (Though at MIT they were described as "telephone hackers," at least in the student newspaper.) The November 20, 1963 issue of The Tech, MIT's student newspaper, featured an article titled "Telephone Hackers Active." It described typical phone phreak shenanigans and in it Professor Carleton Tucker noted that "two or three students are expelled each year for abuses on the phone system." (Goodness!)
- Then they became phone freaks with an "f". A larger, nationwide phone phreak community began to form around 1968-1969 and the term "phone freak" condensed out of the ambient cultural humidity. It's an apt use of the word "freak", by the way: Webster's defines this usage of freak as "an ardent enthusiast <film freaks>" or a "a person who is obsessed with
something <a control freak>". According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, this sense of the word "freak" goes back more than 100 years to 1908. Plus the word "freak" was being popularized by the hippies in the late 1960s -- Google News Archives provides an interesting chart that doesn't prove anything but is neat to look at. :-)
- And then Ron Rosenbaum put the "ph" in phreak. Rosenbaum's October 1971 Esquire article is the first mainstream use of the word "phreak" that I've been able to find, at least in connection with telephones. According to phone phreaks I've interviewed, Rosenbaum was the one who introduced this now famous innovation in spelling -- right up until then they were freaks with an "f." (That said, the Youth International Party Line, the first phone phreak newsletter, used the word "phreek" in its first issue in June 1971.)