As promised, Billingsgate. From Roman times, Billingsgate fish market in London was renowned for the colourful, some would say crude, language that could be heard from its stallholders. Colourful, because it turned the air blue, as we say. So to talk Billingsgate is to swear. As British chronicler Raphael Holinshed recorded ‘as bad a tongue… as any oyster-wife at Billingsgate…’.
Thinking about Billingsgate, I realised that another part of London has been incorporated into everyday English and as so often, people probably don’t stop to think about the original word. I’m referring to Hackney, London borough and district in the north west of the city. Taxis in the city of London used to be called hackneys. Before taxis, transport in the city was mainly by horse-drawn hackney carriage. The word came from ‘hacquenee’ a Norman French word, which used to mean a horse could be hired. Today, most people still call taxis hackney cabs.
But hackneyed is also used to describe something that is outdated, unoriginal or overused.
And I can’t not mention this one: haquenée (old French) meaning ‘ambling nag’ (nag being old horse and ambling meaning moving slowly). The poor horse was probably knackered (exhausted) and no doubt destined for the knacker’s yard (for slaughter).