Black cabs are also known as Hackney cabs or Hackney carriages, but why is that? Peter Watts investigates.
It is one of those questions that may lurk at the back of your mind but you never quite get round to asking: why is a black cab known as a Hackney cab? Is it named after the distinguished London borough, or is that simply a coincidence?
To get to the bottom of the origin, I first turned to Mr Slang himself, Jonathon Green — the world’s foremost lexicographer of cant, vernacular and profanity, whose monumental Green’s Dictionary of Slang is now available online. Jonathon pointed me towards the 14th century term 'hackney horse', which refers to “a run-of-the-mill horse, i.e. not a warhorse or hunter, which was used for everyday riding and subsequently typified as the sort of horse available for hire”.
From this, derives a whole series of words to describe anything of hireable middling standard, from prostitutes to writers, as well as 'hackneyed', which basically means worn out. But the reference to hiring horses in particular explains why 'An Ordinance for the Regulation of Hackney-Coachmen in London and the places adjacent' was passed by Parliament in 1654 with the city’s first licensed carriages following eight years later in 1662.
By the 20th century, and following the onset of motorisation, a hackney cab referred to a taxi that was allowed to pick up passengers from the street – basically black cabs as opposed to pre-booked private hire minicabs.
But still you ask, why 'hackney'? The Oxford English Dictionary claims it comes from the French, haquenée, for 'an ambling horse or mare, especially for ladies to ride on', and this in turn comes from the Old French haque for 'a nag, a gelding, a hackney', but admits 'although the word-group has engaged the most eminent etymologists, its ulterior derivation is still unknown'.
That hasn’t stopped people speculating.
Some sources claim the French took the word from the Dutch hakkenij or hackeneie, for a workaday horse, and others believe that the Dutch took it from Spain’s haca for a nag or gelding. However, lexicographer Eric Partridge and Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable are among those who rebut these foreign boasts, arguing instead that the term originates in east London.
Their reasoning is that in the 12th century, Hackney was a rural area known widely as a place where horses were put to pasture. Indeed, so famous were the hireable horses of Hackney that the post-conquest French pinched the term wholesale sometime after the 12th century and Frenchified it before the English took it back again.
The accuracy of this is much disputed, but nobody can say for sure that it isn’t true, which surely counts for something. Interestingly, some Spanish and Dutch sources do insist that their horsey words derive directly from London’s Hackney, perhaps prompted by the fact that the Hackney is now a recognised horse breed, often used to pull carriages.
Nobody will ever know the truth, and does it even matter? Although the term still has life in the north of England, few people in London ever talk about Hackney cabs, certainly not taxi drivers themselves who have their own slang.
According to a list of cabbie slang terms compiled by Stuart Hessock in 2009, these include the obscure 'carrozza', 'droshky or droski', 'fiacre', as well as the more popular 'flounder' (rhyming slang for 'flounder and dab'), 'sherbet' ('sherbet dab'), 'Sharon', 'smash and grab' and 'Sandy McNab'.
A cab can also be called a 'lot', and a new cab is a 'flash lot', although one cabbie told me, "due to the build quality in recent years, shitcart is often the term of choice”. No need to question the derivation of that.