This evening a passenger asked me what a “hack license” is.
“It’s the sort of license a person needs to drive a cab,” I replied. “It’s issued by a city agency called the Taxi and Limousine Commission, and not by the Department of Motor Vehicles in Albany.
“If you want to see mine, it’s there behind my head, with my picture on it.”
My passenger then wanted to know why the word “hack” was used : “Hack means a nerd, or something like that. Why would they …?”
“You mean why would they use such an insulting word?” I replied.
“A hack means a sort of low person, doesn’t it?” he said, not wanting to be so blunt as to use the word “insult.”
I think I made some comments on class and language, before returning to the essential point. Why the word hack in the first place, anyway?
Well, my kindle was no help. Not that it wouldn’t have told me if I had known how to ask it — but, I hadn’t studied that procedure yet, and so : no definition. (How technologically challenging a simple conversation can be these days!)
It remained for me to promise this friendly passenger that I would look the word up when I got home, and make a post on honknyc.wordpress.com.
So, here is what I found out about “hack,” and how it relates to taxis.
The word hack can mean a horse not set aside for use in war or carting. Both require strong, or fiery and brave horses. A hack is not necessarily a bad horse, just an average one, and is often for hire as a riding horse or carriage horse. So, a horse-drawn carriage for hire might be called a “hack,” with respect to who or what is pulling it, not with respect to the carriage itself. And the word would have stuck even after the carriages-to-let were motorized and not horse-drawn.
So far, so good; but the question still remains, why the word “hack” and not some other?
Here the Oxford Dictionary of American English (the default dictionary on my kindle) came to the rescue again.
It seems that in England, several centuries ago, there was ripe pasture land in East London, where most London horses were kept. The name of the district?
Hackney, of course. The horses from there frequently would have been used as carriage-horses, and the name Hackney cabs came into being.
It has been passed down from generation to generation, automatically and thoughtlessly, and though the question of where the word comes from might be answered, the question of whether the word is fitting after all this time is still a matter for consideration.