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Definition: Originally referred to the act of perpetrating a telephone prank. Today, it can refer to any attempt to study or interfere with a telecommunications system.

Pronunciation: Free-king


The word was coined in 1972 in reference to a practice that had arisen in the 1960s. MIT students were conducting a late-night experiments on the telephone system of the US Department of Defence. Bell, who operated the phone system, investigated the incident and were so impressed that the students were offered jobs!

It was originally ‘Phone Phreak’. In the 1960s, the word ‘Freak’ referred to someone who was ‘cool’. It is thought that the ‘Phreaks’ ironically appropriated the word ‘Freak’ to describe themselves and replaced the ‘f’ with a ‘ph’ to reflect the ‘ph’ in ‘phone’.

Why This Word:

‘Phreak’ is one of the first terms coined to refer to something within the modern telecommunications era. Thus, it occupies that rather odd space of a relic of times that are not really past yet. Indeed, Phreak continues to evolve and can be used by modern day computer hackers. It is interesting in particular because it is only 41 years old as a word – thus, we can actually watch and study its evolution within our own lifetimes.

How to use this word:

This is a word that belongs to the realm of the hacker. I am not sure that it can really be incorporated into any other register of the English language. The use of the ‘ph’ locks it in to only being used with telecommunications-related incidents.

So apologies to anyone who was trying to incorporate it to non-IT fields. I’m afraid that you will simply have to get your phreak off …


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Written by Sean Carabini

Seán Carabini is a Dublin-based author. To date, Seán has written the humorous travel memoirs 'Sticking Out in Minnesota' and 'American Road', as well as 'American Road: The poems' - a book of travel poetry related to the memoir. Seán has also developed a podcast based on the book - subscribe to the American Road podcast today! Seán is a committee member of the Irish Writers' Union.

Chrissy Skelton is Seán Carabini's editor. A graduate of the University of Minnesota's Anthropology programme, Chrissy emerged armed with an arsenal of little-known words and cumbersome jargon - all of which will now be off-loaded onto 'unusedwords' readers!


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