The Grammarphobia Blog

Hansom is as hansom does?

Q: I was reading your posting on “handsome” and got to wondering about which of the word’s many meanings might have influenced the name of those handsome cabs that Holmes and Watson kept jumping in and out of (without paying the drivers, mind you).

A: The nimble little two-wheeled carriages that hauled Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to and from 221B Baker Street may have been good-looking.

But they were called “hansom cabs,” not “handsome cabs.” They were named for Joseph A. Hansom, the architect who patented the design in 1834.

The hansom was drawn by a single horse and seated two passengers—three in a pinch. It was modeled after the popular two-wheeled cabriolet, which had been introduced in the previous century.

The word “cabriolet” was shortened in 1830, and people started using “cab” to mean any cabriolet-type vehicle.

In the late 1890s taximeters were added for calculating fares, and the phrase “taximeter cab” was born.

This term gave us the words “taxicab” and “taxi,” both of which were first recorded in 1907, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. (We’ve written about “taxi” before on our  blog.

Getting back to the hansom, you might be interested in a photo of a beauty that’s owned by the Sherlock Holmes Museum in London.

It’s easy to see why the hansom was preferred by Holmes, who usually had no time to lose. It was light, fast, and could be hailed on the street.

The hansom was so popular in Victorian England that a slangy verbal phrase was born: to “hansom it.” The OED has a couple of citations.

Sabine Baring-Gould wrote in his novel Arminell (1890): “To think that I … a raging Democrat, should be hansoming it to and fro between my Ladies and Honourables.”

Another novelist, Rhoda Broughton, wrote in A Beginner (1894): “One slippery January morning as she hansoms it along.”

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet (1887), hansoms are mentioned three times.

In one scene, Holmes tells Watson to grab his hat and come along. Then: “A minute later we were both in a hansom, driving furiously for the Brixton Road.”

Joseph Hansom died in 1882, too soon to read the Holmes stories that made such rich use of his invention.

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