This verb meaning to steal a vehicle and its contents, and later to commandeer an airplane, is of uncertain origin. It got its start as underworld slang for a thug or hold-up man. It dates to at least 1920 when Ernest Hemingway used it in the short story The Ash Heel’s Tendon (published in 1985 in the New York Times Magazine):
This of course was an exorbitant price for a single bump-off job, but as he explained, “You take it or leave it. I ain’t no working stiff. Get some cheap hyjack if you want a sloppy job.
Other early uses of the term are in a similar sense, without particular reference to robbing vehicles. From Nels Anderson’s The Hobo: The Sociology of the Homeless Man, published in 1923:
He is a hi-jack caught in the act of robbing a fellow who was sleeping, a greater crime in the jungle than an open hold-up.
Use meaning robbing a vehicle dates to at least 1923. From Literary Digest of 4 August of that year:
“I would have had $50,000,” said Jimmy, “if I hadn’t been hijacked.”
But where does the term come from? There are several competing explanations, none of them particularly compelling.
Perhaps the most common explanation is that it comes from a greeting the hijacker would use on his victim, “Hi, Jack!” This sounds implausible on its face and the main evidence for this explanation is its appearance in the American Mercury of January 1926:
The popular hijack...has reached wide circulation since the advent of Volsteadism...It comes from “High, Jack!,” a command to throw up the arms, and originated among the gangs of small crooks which used to traverse the harvest belt at the close of the wheat season.
Or it could come from an earlier use meaning to cause a disturbance. From Dialect Notes III of 1912:
Kick up high jack, v. phr. To cause a disturbance; to have a “hot time.” “They are goin’ over to the school-house tonight and will just kick up high jack.”1
It could be related to jack up, meaning to raise, to increase. This verb phrase dates to the turn of the 20th century and originally mean to rebuke or call to account. From George Ade’s 1896 novel Artie:
He was goin’ to clean the streets and jack up the coppers and build some schoolhouses.
Within a few years the increase sense was in place. From the New York Tribune of 8 May 1904:
The management thought it saw a chance to jack up rents, and made a sudden announcement of a raise.2
Gerald Cohen in Studies in Slang II (1989) suggests that it may come from a mining term used in Webb City Missouri c.1896. Zinc ore was known as jack and high-grade ore was high jack. The miners also came to be known as high-jackers.3 But how this isolated slang term changed in meaning and spread to the wider world is left unexplained. Overall, it seems unlikely. With common words like high and jack, there are bound to be some instances of unrelated collocation of the two terms and this appears to be one of them.
1Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 2, H-O, edited by J.E. Lighter (New York: Random House, 1997), 98.
2HDAS, v. 2, 241.
3Gerald Leonard Cohen, “The Missouri and Hobo Origin of Hijack,” in Studies in Slang, Part II, ed. Gerald Leonard Cohen (Frankfurt am Main: Verlag Peter Lang, 1989), 85-90.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton