In a word: hackneyed

The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


Many people fail to recognize the buried metaphors in English that derive from the time that horses were commonly used for transportation. That is why you find the mistaken free reign for free rein in student papers. Free rein for surrender of control to another is a hackneyed metaphor, worn so smooth by use that it is scarcely recognized as such. And hackneyed is another. 

A hackney was originally an ordinary horse, not a war horse or draft animal, but a horse for everyday riding or pulling a vehicle. The word is very old in English, with citations in the Oxford English Dictionary  from the fourteenth century. It did not take long for a hackney to be considered a horse for hire, and then by extension a carriage for hire pulled by such a horse. 

Given our irrepresible tendency to extend the meanings of words, you can see where this is going. Hackney, shortened to hack, was extended from horse to carriage to driver and finally to a drudge hired to do any kind of work. The noun frequently describes a writer, particularly a journalist, who turns out low-grade prose on demand. 

Thus the adjective, hackneyed, for something used so frequently and indiscriminately as to have lost all freshness, originality, or interest. Hackneyed joins trite, commonplace, and stale to express our lack of enthusiasm with prose, metaphors, and literary or theatrical devices. 

Example: From a 2008 column in The Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein: "Please spare us the 'perfect storm' metaphor. It's hackneyed, for starters. It doesn't square with the facts."


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