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shameless pleading






So go to the source and ask the horse.

Dear Word Detective: I recently made the mistake of reading a review of a TV show I watch every week, in which the reviewer mocked the show for what he called its “hackneyed” characters and plots. I inferred that what he meant by “hackneyed” was “lame,” which my show is absolutely not, but what exactly does “hackneyed” mean and where did it come from? — Dan Gordon, LA.

“My show”? Awesome, dude. You are a True Viewer, not some channel-hopping dilettante. I, too, watch and love things the reviewers mock. Unfortunately, most of “my shows” get canceled in mid-season, which really isn’t fair. Most recently, I was happily watching “Allegiance” on NBC, a show about a polymath CIA analyst who discovers that his parents (and sister!) are evil Russkie spies. It was an addictive (albeit deeply silly) show, but NBC pulled the plug after just five episodes. You can watch the rest of the season online, but it’s really not the same.

“Hackneyed” today is most often used to mean “commonplace, overused, trite, banal, or cliched” (“Most commentary on political web sites consists of hackneyed rants delivered to the bored faithful”), simply “tired or worn out” (“Bob’s boss was growing weary of his hackneyed excuses”), or “weary and cynical” (“Many of the reporters at City Hall were hackneyed veterans who barely raised an eyebrow at the Mayor’s resignation”).

The initial meaning of “hackneyed” when it first appeared in English in 1767 was, however, simply “for hire,” and thereby hangs a tale or, more precisely, a horse’s tail. Today London contains a borough called Hackney, a bustling urban neighborhood. But back in the 14th century, Hackney was a separate village surrounded by pastures ideal for grazing horses. The horses bred in Hackney were perfect for riding (called “ambling” horses as opposed to “work” or “war” horses), and the villagers developed a successful business renting them out. So successful was their rent-a-horse business, in fact, that soon any horse for hire became known as a “hackney,” and the term gradually spread throughout western Europe.

From meaning “a horse for hire,” the term “hackney” eventually came to mean just about anything “for hire,” and low-wage servants and prostitutes were also known as “hackneys” in the 16th century. But the most important development in the word was the rise of the “hackney coach,” a horse-drawn coach that could be hired by anyone who could pay. These hackneys eventually evolved into the classic black London cab still known as a “hackney.” And that, folks, is why taxicab drivers in New York City are called “hackies” and their cabs are called “hacks.”

By the mid-18th century, “hackneyed” had acquired both its “boring, common” and “weary, jaded” senses, most likely drawn from, respectively, the ubiquity of “hackney coaches” and the worn-out state of overworked carriage horses. The sense of “hackney” meaning simply “for hire,” plus a touch of “trite, banal,” gave us the “hack” writer who churns out uninspired prose (“hack work”), especially a journalist who habitually recycles hackneyed “conventional wisdom.”

8 comments to Hackneyed

  • Elena

    Dear Sirs,

    when I read about the pastures of the 14th centuries, their later horses for hire and ill-fed servants, I just supposed that for some time they must have been named Hackneycus. And even Hackneycus Romanticus. The cuscus then was left aside to the poetry astride like we can meet in the novel “All men are enemies” by R. Aldington. In the limits of animal comparisons he seemed to be keen on a kangaroo across his path, the author with a slightly German accent, T.Lawrence. Then, generally speaking, I still suppose that Hackneyed much obliges to the kangaroo family in the trend called politics. And the question “What are his hackneyed polotics ?” may be read as the question about the politics he borrowed.

  • Irit

    Dear Word Detective,

    Just as a side note, if you liked “Allegiance” then I really recommend watching its original version “Ta Gordin” (see It speaks Hebrew (and Russion of course) but maybe you can find translation to English.


  • Daniel Middleman

    This is fascinating. I went from Jason Statham’s accent to Marina Sirtis being from Hackney and I ended up here. I didn’t know New York cabbies are called “hacks.”

  • Phyllis

    Hello, my Arkansas older relatives call the trunk of a car the turtlehull. I was wondering if you have heard this and the history of it? Thank you for any response. Phyllis Zimmerman

  • Graeme Roberts

    So happy to meet you, Word Detective! Thank you!

  • I’m afraid the Oxford English Dictionary does not agree with you on any connection with Hackney (which is sad as I live there). Its etymology is:-
    [a. OF. haquenée fem. ‘an ambling horse or mare, especially for ladies to ride on’; cf. OSp. and Pg. facanea, Sp. hacanea, It. acchinea (Florio), chinea ‘a hackney or ambling nag’: see Diez, Scheler, etc. (In 1373 latinized in England as hakeneius: see Du Cange.) /   It is now agreed by French and Dutch scholars that MDu. hackeneie, hackeneye, Du. hakkenij, to which some have referred the French word, was merely adopted from the French, thus disposing of conjectures as to the derivation of the word from MDu. hacken to hoe. The French haquenée and its Romanic equivalents had probably some relationship with OF. haque, OSp. and Pg. faca, Sp. haca ‘a nag, a gelding, a hackney’ (Minsheu): but, although the word-group has engaged the most eminent etymologists, its ulterior derivation is still unknown.]

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