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Mind your language

Where ‘taxi’ really came from

A hint: it’s nothing to do with Thurn und Taxis

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

3 September 2016

9:00 AM

Old Quentin Letts was on the wireless the other day asking ‘What’s the point of the London black cab?’ Between much shouting from my husband (a sign he is paying attention) I heard an old cabby explain that the word taxi came from its German inventor, whose name was Thurn und Taxis. Really!

There is no defeating this blunder, which is all over the internet. In reality taxi came into English from the French taximètre (1905), where the first element represents taxe, ‘tariff’.


Taxis are hackney carriages. Autodidact cab-drivers cite an origin from Middle Dutch, in which an ambling horse was called hackeneie. But why did the Dutch call it that? In 1898, the Oxford English Dictionary was sure it had nothing to do with the place Hackney, but might be connected with the Spanish haca. Today, Hackney has fought back. The Royal Spanish Academy’s dictionary declares that jaca, ‘a horse no higher than a metre and a half’, derives from Hackney ‘famous for its horses’. Was it so famed? I wonder.

In London Labour and the London Poor (1851), Henry Mayhew charted the fall of the old hackney-carriage drivers, who had bought their vehicles from carriage-folk. These men made good money, thanks to a limit of their numbers to 1,200. Then hackney cabs (short for cabriolets) came in — light hooded chaises — at first limited to 100, but from the 1830s unlimited in numbers, so that in 1850 there were 5,000.

By then, cab could mean a four-wheeler. Clarences were named after the Duke of Clarence (William IV from 1830). Lord Brougham, Lord Chancellor in 1830, also had a compact carriage named after him in 1838. Thomas Carlyle had a carriage in the 1860s which he called by either name indifferently. The nickname for a four-wheeled cab was a growler, from its sound on the road.

Joseph Hansom’s patent of a two-wheeled ‘safety’ cab in 1834 earned him no money, for the streets were full of counterfeit hansoms called by the cab trade showfulls — an English spelling of a Yiddish word from the German Schofel, ‘rubbish’. For a time it was Schofel über alles.


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