The Grammarphobia Blog

Taxi! Taxi!

Q: I’m a WNYC listener in Minnesota. I have a comment, not a question. You were discussing the origin of the word “taxi” on the last show. I believe it comes from the Greek tachis, meaning fast or swift.

A: I’ve done some rooting around for the root of “taxi” and here’s what I’ve found.

“Taxi” is a shortened form of “taxicab,” and both first appeared in print in 1907. The two words are derived from the expression “taximeter cab,” meaning a cab with an automatic meter (or taximeter) for recording the distance traveled and the fare.

The meter itself (the word “taximeter” dates from 1898) took its name from the French taximètre (earlier spelled taxamètre), which came in turn from the German word taxameter, a meter used in horse-drawn cabs.

The “taxa” portion of the original word comes from Medieval Latin and means, literally, a “tax” (from the verb taxare, to tax or assess or evaluate).

The Greek taxis means arrangement or division, and is unrelated. It’s the source of our words “taxonomy” and “taxidermy.” The Greek takhos (speed) is the root of “tachometer” but not, it would appear, of “taximeter.”

I’d better stop now before this becomes too taxing.

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