The Grammarphobia Blog

Why tired writing is hackneyed

Q: You’ve used “hackneyed” several times on your blog to describe tired writing, but you haven’t discussed the origins of the word. Just curious.

A: The usage comes from “hackney,” an old term for a hired horse, one that was often overworked and worn out. The ultimate source, however, was probably a village that supplied horses in medieval England.

As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, “Probably < the name of Hackney, formerly a village in Middlesex (now a borough in London; 1198 as Hakeneia, 1236 as Hakeneye), probably with reference to supply of horses from the surrounding meadows.”

When the term first appeared in its equine sense, spelled hakeney in Middle English, it referred to a horse used for general-purpose riding, as distinct from hunting, racing, cavalry, and so on.

The OED’s first example, written mostly in Latin, is a 1299 entry in Household Accounts From Medieval England (1992), edited by the historian Christopher M. Woolgar:

“In expensis Lakoc cum uno hakeney conducto de Lond’ usque Canterbire pro tapetis cariandis” (“Expenses of Lakoc [an abbey in Wiltshire] for carrying tapestry by hackney from London to Canterbury”).

The first Oxford example for “hackney” as a horse for hire is from Piers Plowman (circa 1378), the allegorical poem by William Langland: “Ac hakeneyes hadde þei none bote hakeneyes to hyre” (“As for hackneys, they had none but hackneys for hire”).

In the late 16th century, the word “hackney” started being used adjectivally to describe an expression or a phrase made “stale or tired through indiscriminate use; overused; banal,” according to the OED.

The first OED example is from A Theological Discourse of the Lamb of God and His Enemies (1590), by the Anglican clergyman Richard Harvey, who refers to “a monstrous and a craftie antichristian practisser” relying on “hackney sillogismes.”

Meanwhile, writers began using “hackney” as a verb meaning to ride a horse. The earliest Oxford citation is from A New Tragicall Comedie of Apius & Virginia (1575), by R. B. (perhaps Richard Bower).

Here a befuddled character named Haphazard, though apparently speaking nonsense, uses the verb figuratively to foretell his execution:

“Hap was hyred to hackney in hempstrid, / In hazard he was of riding on beamestrid” (“Hap was hired to ride a hangman’s rope, / In hazard he was of riding astride a beam”).

The verb was soon being used, often in the passive, to mean to overuse or make too familiar. The OED cites Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1 (1598): “So common hackneid in the eyes of men / So stale and cheape to vulgar companie.” (We’ve expanded the citation.)

In the 1600s, the dictionary says, “hackney coach” came to mean a “four-wheeled coach for hire.” Later, “hackney cab” and “hackney carriage” referred to horse-drawn and then motor-driven vehicles to carry passengers for a fee.

In the mid-1700s, people began using the term we use today—“hackneyed”—as an adjective to describe a phrase or subject “made trite, uninteresting, or commonplace through familiarity or overuse; stale, tired; banal,” the OED says.

The dictionary’s first example is from a comment by the critic William Warburton in a 1747 Shakespearean anthology he edited: “For the much-used hacknied metaphors being now very imperfectly known, great care is required not to act in this case temerariously.”

The most recent Oxford example is from Mortal Rituals (2013), Matt J. Rossano’s book about the survivors of a 1972 Uruguayan Air Force crash: “The hackneyed phrase there’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ does have some truth to it.”

As for the short form “hack,” it evolved similarly. Here are the earliest OED dates for some of its senses: horse for hire (1571), driver of a hackney carriage (1661), hireling (1699), trite writing (1710), trite or dull (1759), journalistic drudge (1798), ride a horse (1800), writer of unoriginal work (1927).

Finally, we should mention that the modern “hackney horse” isn’t a worn-out horse for hire. It’s a high-stepping carriage horse popular in harness events. The Hackney Horse Society’s stud book has records for the breed dating back to 1755.

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