The Grammarphobia Blog

Hoboes, bootleggers, and hijackers

Q: You were discussing the origin of the word “hijack” recently on WNYC. Could it be derived from the verb “jack,” meaning to steal or rob?

A: If only it were that simple. The verb “hijack” apparently came before “jack,” but we’ll have to do some digging to get to the bottom of this.

The Oxford English Dictionary says “hijack” originated as a slang term in the United States in the early 20th century, then passed into general use. Apart from that, the OED says, the ancestry of “hijack” is unknown.

The dictionary has no published references for the word, or for its derivative terms, published any earlier than the 1920s.

The first such citation is from a July 1923 article in the Nation: “There was, of course, the rush of adventurers, oil promoters, highjackers (an oil-region term for murderous robbers).”

Back then, the term “hijacker” (spelled “highjacker”) must have been unfamiliar to most people, since the writer or editor of the article felt it necessary to toss in a definition.

The OED also cites two references that appeared only a month later, in the Literary Digest issue of August 1923: ” ‘I would have had $50,000,’ said Jimmy, ‘if I hadn’t been hijacked.’ ” And, “So much for hijacking on the high seas.”

Here’s another OED citation for “hijacker” that includes a definition for the benefit of British readers; it was published in the Times of London in October 1925: “A shooting affray between bootleggers and ‘hijackers’ (men who prey on bootleggers) took place … in a lodging-house on the west side of New York.”

By the way, the OED‘s definition of “hijack” is “to steal (contraband or stolen goods) in transit, to rob (a bootlegger or smuggler) of his illicit goods; to hold up and commandeer (a vehicle and its load) in transit; to seize (an aeroplane) in flight and force the pilot to fly to a new destination.”

The verb “jack” originated as a shortened form of “hijack” with much the same meaning, according to the OED. It was first recorded in the American Mercury in 1930: “Two loads jacked. That’s the blow off. You’re through.”

As used today, however, this slang use of “jack” is closer in meaning to “rob” or “burgle.”

But back to “hijack.” Words don’t just suddenly appear out of the blue in national publications. “Hijack” must have been part of slang speech well before 1923. So where did it come from?

The etymologist Gerald L. Cohen has asked himself the same question, and he was kind enough to send me copies of some of his findings. In Studies in Slang II (1989), he presents evidence suggesting that “hijack” originated in the late 19th century as a mining term in Missouri, where zinc ore was referred to as “jack.”

“The miners in the booming Webb City area of Missouri (SW) would often slip some ‘high jack’ (high grade zinc) into their boots or pockets before leaving work,” he writes. “They were referred to as ‘high jackers.’ “

The word “hijack,” he adds, “later turned up in the hobo jungles with the meaning ‘rob a fellow hobo while he is asleep’ – a major offense among the hoboes; and by 1923 it came into widespread use as ‘steal bootlegged liquor.’ Now, of course, it refers to commandeering a plane, bus, etc.”

Cohen notes that the only point not clear is how the hoboes applied a mining term for “pilferer of zinc ore” to “robber of a fellow hobo while asleep.”

“In any case,” he says, “once this semantic development occurred, the revulsion by the hoboes toward such stealing led to the term’s coming to refer to an outright hold-up. And it was in this latter sense that the 1920s bootleggers adopted the word.”

Cohen writes that another common explanation, that robbers would shout “High, Jack” when commanding victims to raise their hands, “is almost certainly a folk etymology.”

Is the ultimate source of “hijack” now present and accounted for? Perhaps, but only time will tell.

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