hack / hackney

How did a word for a taxi also become a term meaning overused and worn out?

Hackney comes from the Old French haquenée, meaning a gentle, riding horse, an ambling horse. It was adopted into English in the 14th century meaning a horse of middle size or fair quality. From The Romance of Sir Beues of Hamtoun, a 14th century poem:

Ac nim a ligter hakenai & lef her the swerd Morgelai.
(But take a lighter hackney & leave here the sword Morgelai.)

Very early on, by 1393 at the latest, the word had also acquired the meaning of a horse for hire. From William Langland’s Piers Plowman (C Text) of that year:

Ac hakeneyes hadde thei none. bote hakeneyes to hyre.
(But hackneys had they none, hackneys for hire to boot.)

On 18 April 1664 Samuel Pepys uses the word in his Diary to refer to a hired carriage, and the sense of hackney as taxi was born:

Myself being in a hackney and full of people, was ashamed to be seen by the world, many of them knowing me.

Anything that is rented is bound to be worn out before its time, and by 1596 hackney was being used as an adjective meaning tired or worn out. From Thomas Nashe’s Have With You to Saffron-Walden of that year:

A hackney prouerb in mens mouths euer since K. Lud was a little boy.1

The clipped form hack, meaning a vehicle for hire, appears in 1704 in Sir Richard Steele’s The Lying Lover:

We’ll take a Hack—Our Maids shall go with us.

Hack, meaning a hackney horse, is glossed in Nathan Bailey’s 1721 An Universal Etymological English Dictionary.

Use of hack, meaning the driver of a hackney carriage, makes its appearance in England in the late 17th century. It appears to have died out after a century or so of use, only to be recoined in the United States in the 20th century to refer to modern taxis. From The Hind and the Panther Transvers’d, written by Charles Montagu, 1st Earl of Halifax, and Matthew Prior in 1687:

[They] slipping through the Palsgrave, bilkt poor Hack.2

And from Benjamin Appel’s Brain Guy of 1934:

Hell, that hack must’ve figured you a big shot.3

Although the verb, to hack, meaning to ride in a hired carriage, appears somewhat earlier. From The Philadelphia Times of 8 May 1879:

Are we more content to depend on street cars and walking, with the accustomed alternative of hacking at six times the money?4

And the sense meaning to drive a cab appears in the early years of the 20th century. From the Independent of 2 April 1903:

I’ve been thirty-five years at the hackin’ business in Brooklyn an’ Manhattan.

The sense of hack, meaning a modern taxi, appears a few decades later. From The New Yorker of 3 November 1928:

Hack—a familiar and affectionate term for a taxicab.5


1Oxford English Dictionary, hackney, n. (a.), 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 5 Feb 2009 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50101161>.

2OED2, hack, n.3 (a.), <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50101116>.

3Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 2.

4Century Dictionary Online, 20 Mar 2001, accessed 25 Dec 2008 .

5HDAS, v. 2, H-O, 2.

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