Hackney

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The common noun (and adjective) 'a hackney', sometimes shortened to hack, has several meanings, all of which are derived from the first, 'a horse used for everyday riding'. A verb developed from the noun may be of more interest to the average reader of AWE. There is also a proper noun, which probably has nothing to do with the common noun. There is also a participial adjective hackneyed, which may be used of student writers. (It is not a compliment.)

  • The hackney (from about 1700, often abbreviated to hack) was first a horse, in the days when horses were the most common form of personal transport.
    • It was specifically a horse used for ordinary riding - the sort of horse on which a knight might have jogged towards a tournament, or, in later times, a hunter might have ridden to a meet. In both cases, a more valuable and specialist horse would be led to the event by a servant, the destrier or charger for the tournament, a hunter for the other. The hunter was hacking to the meeting.
Readers interested in equestrianism may like to know OED''s definition of 'a hack' (noun 3 (adjective)): "A horse for ordinary riding, as distinguished from cross-country, military, or other special riding; a saddle-horse for the road.
The word implies technically a half-bred horse with more bone and substance than a thorough-bred."
    • The ordinariness of this led to the practice of hiring out horses for some ordinary journey, so a hackney stable was one that kept horses for hire.
      • By extension, hackney became an adjective meaning 'for hire'. This can be seen in such combinations as hackney-cab, a legalistic and bureaucratic name for a taxi (in earlier times a hackney carriage or hackney coach; and even earlier, a hackney-chair - a form of transport in which two men carried a traveller in a chair fitted with poles). A taxi is also known as a hansom cab.
    • Figuratively, hackney was applied to any over-worked person, or drudge.
      • This became commonly applied to writers, those who turn their pens to any use; 'Grub Street hacks'. Nowadays this is mostly a pejorative, or self-deprecating term used of writers in daily papers. Private Eye uses it as a standard term for 'journalist'. The full word hackney is rarely used for this meaning.
    • When applied to women, it was often used to mean 'prostitute' - one whom any man can 'ride', for a fee. This meaning is rarely abbreviated to hack.
  • The participial adjective hackneyed is used about language, where it applies to cliches - overworked words, phrases or Figures of speech. OED defines it: "Used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost its freshness and interest; made trite and commonplace; stale."
  • The proper noun Hackney is the name of a district of London. It is recorded in 1198 as Hakeneia. It appears to mean 'an island belonging to a man called Haca’, or 'an island shaped like a hook'. The 'island' may simply be a patch of drier ground in the middle of a marsh.
  • Note that the verb 'to hack' also has several meanings. For more, go to hack.