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So go to the source and ask the horse.

Dear Word Detective: I recently made the mistake of reading a review of a TV show I watch every week, in which the reviewer mocked the show for what he called its “hackneyed” characters and plots. I inferred that what he meant by “hackneyed” was “lame,” which my show is absolutely not, but what exactly does “hackneyed” mean and where did it come from? — Dan Gordon, LA.

“My show”? Awesome, dude. You are a True Viewer, not some channel-hopping dilettante. I, too, watch and love things the reviewers mock. Unfortunately, most of “my shows” get canceled in mid-season, which really isn’t fair. Most recently, I was happily watching “Allegiance” on NBC, a show about a polymath CIA analyst who discovers that his parents (and sister!) are evil Russkie spies. It was an addictive (albeit deeply silly) show, but NBC pulled the plug after just five episodes. You can watch the rest of the season online, but it’s really not the same.

“Hackneyed” today is most often used to mean “commonplace, overused, trite, banal, or cliched” (“Most commentary on political web sites consists of hackneyed rants delivered to the bored faithful”), simply “tired or worn out” (“Bob’s boss was growing weary of his hackneyed excuses”), or “weary and cynical” (“Many of the reporters at City Hall were hackneyed veterans who barely raised an eyebrow at the Mayor’s resignation”).

The initial meaning of “hackneyed” when it first appeared in English in 1767 was, however, simply “for hire,” and thereby hangs a tale or, more precisely, a horse’s tail. Today London contains a borough called Hackney, a bustling urban neighborhood. But back in the 14th century, Hackney was a separate village surrounded by pastures ideal for grazing horses. The horses bred in Hackney were perfect for riding (called “ambling” horses as opposed to “work” or “war” horses), and the villagers developed a successful business renting them out. So successful was their rent-a-horse business, in fact, that soon any horse for hire became known as a “hackney,” and the term gradually spread throughout western Europe.

From meaning “a horse for hire,” the term “hackney” eventually came to mean just about anything “for hire,” and low-wage servants and prostitutes were also known as “hackneys” in the 16th century. But the most important development in the word was the rise of the “hackney coach,” a horse-drawn coach that could be hired by anyone who could pay. These hackneys eventually evolved into the classic black London cab still known as a “hackney.” And that, folks, is why taxicab drivers in New York City are called “hackies” and their cabs are called “hacks.”

By the mid-18th century, “hackneyed” had acquired both its “boring, common” and “weary, jaded” senses, most likely drawn from, respectively, the ubiquity of “hackney coaches” and the worn-out state of overworked carriage horses. The sense of “hackney” meaning simply “for hire,” plus a touch of “trite, banal,” gave us the “hack” writer who churns out uninspired prose (“hack work”), especially a journalist who habitually recycles hackneyed “conventional wisdom.”

Slough of despond

 The worst part was that the pigs seemed to find it amusing.

Dear Word Detective: I recently happened to encounter a former coworker of mine waiting for a bus, and I asked him how he’d been doing. He responded that he had been in “a slough of despond” for a month or two after he lost his job, but is now working again and feeling better. It would have been awkward to ask him what “slough of despond” means, but I gather it has something to do with depression. What say you? — Cliff S.

Funny you should ask. Just the other night I was taking an evening stroll down our rural road when I noticed one of the local honor students driving his daddy’s giant pickup truck directly at me. I stepped off the side of the road, lost my footing, and landed, face down, in a damp drainage ditch. Directly downhill from a pig pen. A real pig pen, with real pigs. I’m writing this, incidentally, in the shower, where I’ve been since that night. I may come out in a week or two.

This sad tale is relevant to your question because Christian, the protagonist in John Bunyan’s 1678 allegorical epic “Pilgrim’s Progress,” endures a similar mishap (sans the pickup truck, of course). In Christian’s case, the locale is a fetid bog known as the Slough of Despond, into which he stumbles, and then sinks and becomes trapped, weighed down as he is by the several hundred pounds of his sins he’s carrying in a rucksack. It’s a long story, but he’s rescued by a dude named Help and it all turns out OK in the end. The great thing about Pilgrim’s Progress is that it’s easy to keep the characters straight because they all have names (Obstinate, Pliable, Help, Evangelist, etc.) that describe their character or function in the story.

The Slough of Despond in Bunyan’s tale is a metaphor, of course, and Bunyan depicted the Slough as the repository of humanity’s sins and moral failures (“… the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run”). But many subsequent writers, from Emily Bronte to Somerset Maugham to John Steinbeck, have used “Slough of Despond” to mean either a prolonged state of extreme depression or a material state of dire poverty and suffering.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines “slough” (which rhymes with “cow”) as “A piece of soft, miry, or muddy ground; especially a place or hole in a road or way filled with wet mud or mire and impassable by heavy vehicles, horses, etc.” A mudhole, in other words. The OED draws a blank on the origin of the word, but suggest it may be rooted in the Scots word “slunk,” which means the same thing and is of equally obscure origin. This “slough,” by the way, is unrelated to the verb “slough,” pronounced “sluff” and meaning “to throw off or shed like dead skin” or simply “get rid of,” which comes from Germanic roots meaning “peel.”

To “despond,” of course, means to lose heart, lose confidence, become without hope and “despondent.” It comes from the Latin “despondere” (“de,” away, plus “spondere,” to promise), and originally meant “to surrender, yield,” (i.e., “promise away”), but the sense today is of “giving up hope.” Thus a “despondent” person is seriously stuck in the mud and can only hope that helpful “Help” dude is on the way.



Dear Word Detective: What is the origin of “swell” as in “That cat lover is a swell guy”? — Anne.

Swell guy, indeed. Try “That cat lover is a royal sucker.” In addition to the pack now infesting our house, we now have two or three who regularly show up on our front porch looking for a handout.

The use of “swell” in your example, as an adjective meaning “pleasant, kind, generous,” is actually a fairly recent development of the word and first appeared in print in the 1920s. “Swell” as an interjection meaning something from “excellent” to just “that’s fine” is even more recent, first found in the 1930s (“‘Swell,’ said Mabel, placing the document in her vanity-bag.” P.G. Wodehouse, Luck of the Bodkins, 1935).

Our English word “swell” is, of course, much older, first appearing in Old English, from Germanic roots, as the verb “swellan,” meaning “to grow or make larger.” (Fun fact: the past participle of “swellan” in Old English was “swollen,” which we still use as the past participle of “swell,” as in “swollen ankles.”) In general, our English “swell” has stuck fairly close to the original meaning of “grow larger” as elaborated in the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb: “To become larger in bulk, increase in size (by pressure from within, as by absorption of moisture, or of material in the process of growth, by inflation with air or gas, etc.); to become distended or filled out; especially to undergo abnormal or morbid increase of size … as the result of infection or injury.”

As a noun, “swell” has meant, in general, an increase in size, elevation (as a hill), or volume or intensity (as in music). Long rolling waves in the sea are called “swells” (and, if they’re very deep and powerful, as from a big storm, they are known as “groundswells,” a term now used to mean powerful changes in public opinion). Figuratively, “swell” was used in the 18th century to mean “arrogant or pretentious behavior” (“The softness of foppery, the swell of insolence, the liveliness of levity.” 1751), and a bit later “swell” became more positive slang for a stylishly-dressed gentleman. From there “swell” took on the meaning of “a distinguished person; one who is good at something.”

This gave us, in the early 19th century, the use of “swell” as an adjective meaning “stylish, first-rate, distinguished” (“Why are we not to interfere with politics as much as the swell ladies in London?” B. Disraeli, 1845), a sense which was, over time, weakened to the point that “swell” came to mean simply “OK, fine, nice, pleasant” (“We’re eating at the lake; we could have a swell time.” Arthur Miller, 1947).

“Swell” in this diluted sense is now largely a US usage, and, this being the Age of Cynicism, it’s rarely used except in an ironic or sarcastic sense (“You left your wallet at home? Swell.”), which is too bad. There’s an uncomplicated charm to “swell” used sincerely.