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Q From G Clark: What is the origin and meaning of hackneyed?

A Let us take a large step back in time to medieval England, say to the year 1300. Hackney is now just a place-name embedded within London, north-east of the City, but then it was a small village. It lay on the west side of the River Lea but separated from it by a large area of marshland (to be commemorated about 550 years later by a music-hall song whose refrain went: “With a ladder and some glasses / You could see the Hackney Marshes, / If it wasn’t for the houses in between”).

The countryside around Hackney was pleasant, open, good-quality grassland, which became famous for the horses bred and pastured there. These were riding horses, “ambling horses”, as opposed to war horses or draught horses. Hence hackney became the standard term for a horse of this type.

Because such horses were often made available for hire, the word also came to refer, about the end of the fourteenth century, to any horse that was intended to be hired out. Later still, the emphasis shifted from “horse” to “hire”, and it was used for any passenger vehicle similarly available, especially the hackney coach or hackney carriage. This last term became the usual one for a vehicle that could be hired — today’s London black taxis, with not a horse in sight, are still formally referred to by that name.

Horses of the hackney type were often worked heavily, in the nature of things that were hired out to all and sundry. So the word evolved in parallel with the previous sense to refer figuratively to something that was overused to the point of drudgery. By the middle of the sixteenth century, hackney was being applied to people in just this sense, and was abbreviated about the start of the eighteenth century to hack, as in hack work; it was applied in particular to literary drudges who dashed off poor-quality writing to order — hence its modern pejorative application to journalists.

Hackney horses were also widely available and commonly seen, to the extent that they became commonplace and unremarkable. So yet another sense evolved — for something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest, hence something stale, unoriginal or trite. The adjective hackneyed communicated this idea from about the middle of the eighteenth century on.

By the way, it was thought at one time that this whole set of words derived from the French haquenée, an ambling horse. The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary considered this to be so, but modern writers are sure that the French term was actually borrowed from the English place name, so great was the reputation of Hackney’s horses even in medieval times.

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Page created 11 May 2002