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.”