hackneyed – hack






hackneyed, adjective: (of phrases, fashions, etc.) used so often as to be trite, dull and stereotyped
hack, noun: a writer or journalist producing dull, unoriginal work





The noun hackney, which is first recorded in the late 13th century, originally denoted a horse of middle size and quality, used for ordinary riding. As early as the late 14th century, it was also used to mean a horse kept for hire.

From the latter use developed in the 16th century the sense, now obsolete, of a person who is used to do mean or servile work for hire. One of the early instances of this is found in The discouerie of witchcraft (1584), by Reginald Scot (died 1599):

As for Archangels, they are sent onelie about great and secret matters ; and angels are common hacknies about euerie trifle.

The word also came to be used as an adjective meaning trite, commonplace. In Haue with you to Saffron-walden. Or, Gabriell Harueys hunt is vp (1596), the English pamphleteer Thomas Nash (1567-1601) accused one of his adversaries of using

a hackny prouerb in mens mouths euer since K. Lud was a little boy, or Belinus Brennus brother, for the loue hee bare to oysters built Billinsgate.

Similarly, the verb to hackney, which originally meant to use (a horse) for general riding purposes, took the figurative sense of to make common by indiscriminate everyday usage, to render trite and commonplace. For instance, in The First part of King Henry the Fourth (1597), the English dramatist and poet William Shakespeare (1564-1616) makes King Henry say to Prince Henry:

Had I so lavish of my presence been,
So common-hackney’d in the eyes of men,
So stale and cheap to vulgar company,
Opinion, that did help me to the crown,
Had still kept loyal to possession
And left me in reputeless banishment,
A fellow of no mark nor likelihood.

From the past participle of this verb, the adjective hackneyed appeared in the mid-18th century in the sense trite and commonplace. In 1749, in his notes on The Art of Poetry (Ars Poetica) by the Roman poet Horace, Richard Hurd (1720-1808), Bishop of Worcester, explained:

Novelty is a charm which nothing can excuse the want of, in works of entertainment. And the necessity of preventing the tedium arising from hacknied expression is so instant that those, who are neither capable of prescribing to themselves this Rule of the callida Junctara (= skilful joining), or of following it when prescribed by others, are yet inclined to ape it by some spurious contrivance.


Mostly familiar and derogatory, the noun hack, abbreviation of hackney, has had the various senses of the latter. But it is first recorded in 1699 as a slang word meaning a common drudge in A New Dictionary of the Terms Ancient and Modern of the Canting Crew, by “B. E. Gent.”:

Hacks, or Hackneys, Hirelings.

This noun came to be especially applied to a literary drudge, who hires himself out to do any and every kind of literary work, hence the meaning poor writer, mere scribbler. For example, the Anglo-Irish novelist, playwright and poet Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) wrote the following Epitaph on Edward Purdon (1729-67). (Purdon was an Irish author and translator educated at Trinity College, Dublin. Having wasted his patrimony, he enlisted as a foot soldier. Growing tired of that employment, he obtained his discharge and became a scribbler in the newspapers. He translated Voltaire’s Henriade.):

Here lies poor Ned Purdon, from misery freed,
Who long was a bookseller’s hack;
He led such a damnable life in this world,—
I don’t think, he’ll wish to come back.


The nouns hackney and hack also had the sense of a prostitute, from the idea of hiring one’s own person. In An Apologie of the Schoole of Abuse, against Poëts, Pipers, Players, and their Excusers (1579), Stephen Gosson (1554-1625), anti-theatrical polemicist and Church of England clergyman, wrote:

Venus a notorious strumpet, that lay with Mars, with Mercurie, with Iupiter, with Anchises, with Butes, with Adones, that taught the women in Cyprus to set vp a Stewes [= a brothel*], too hyre out them selues as hackneies, for gaine, and that made her self as common as a Barbars chayre, by Poets is placed for a goddesse in heauen.

(* Stews were public hot-air bath-houses; their frequent use for immoral purposes led to the sense brothel.)

And Dictionarium Britannicum: Or a more Compleat Universal Etymological English Dictionary Than any extant (1736), by Nathan Bailey, contains the following:

An Hack, a common hackney Horse, Coach, or Strumpet.

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