n. (context computing English) an algorithm that generates a numeric, or fixed-size character output from a variable-sized piece of text or other data; used in database table queries, cryptography and in error-checking
A hash function is any function that can be used to map data of arbitrary size to data of fixed size. The values returned by a hash function are called hash values, hash codes, hash sums, or simply hashes. One use is a data structure called a hash table, widely used in computer software for rapid data lookup. Hash functions accelerate table or database lookup by detecting duplicated records in a large file. An example is finding similar stretches in DNA sequences. They are also useful in cryptography. A cryptographic hash function allows one to easily verify that some input data maps to a given hash value, but if the input data is unknown, it is deliberately difficult to reconstruct it (or equivalent alternatives) by knowing the stored hash value. This is used for assuring integrity of transmitted data, and is the building block for HMACs, which provide message authentication.
Hash functions are related to (and often confused with) checksums, check digits, fingerprints, randomization functions, error-correcting codes, and ciphers. Although these concepts overlap to some extent, each has its own uses and requirements and is designed and optimized differently. The Hash Keeper database maintained by the American National Drug Intelligence Center, for instance, is more aptly described as a catalogue of file fingerprints than of hash values.