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Taxi

Q From Ron Witton, Australia: What is the origin of taxi?

A One day in early July 1894, two entrepreneurs from Hamburg named Bruhn and Westendorf attended a meeting at the Board of Trade in London concerning their device, called a taxameter-fare indicator. According to The Illustrated Police News of 7 July, the two men explained that the instrument showed how many passengers were being carried, the fare to be paid, the number of trips made by the cab and the miles traversed in the course of the day. They claimed it had already been adopted in cities such as Hamburg, Berlin, Bremen and Dresden and that local authorities were making its adoption a condition of granting licences.

The wheels turned slowly in the Board of Trade and it was not until March 1899 that the first cabs fitted with them came into regular use in the capital. The delay was partly the result of opposition by the London Cab Drivers Union, which was deeply suspicious of the potentially adverse implications for their members’ livelihoods of accurately recording drivers’ takings. Northern cities such as Liverpool, Bradford, Manchester and Leeds were ahead of London (as were New York and Buenos Aires). General public satisfaction with the meters was reported. Passengers preferred the new taxameter-fitted cabs because they obviated arguments with bullying cabbies about fares. Cabbies were happy, too, as relations with customers had improved, their takings had gone up and the level of tips had remained the same.

The German name of Taxameter, at first adopted in Britain, was taken from Taxe, a charge or levy. After the device became common in Paris (another city that was well ahead of London), the French created the term taximètre for it, from taxe, a tariff (the e changed to i through the influence of the famous Hellenist Théodore Reinach in a letter to Le Temps newspaper in 1906, in which he advocated going back to the classical Greek taxis from which both the German and French words ultimately derived).

Partly in consequence of patriotic feelings, coupled with anti-German sentiment (the Yorkshire Post commented sourly in June 1894 that it trusted that a system for charging fares might be introduced “without it being found necessary to resort to a German arrangement”), the French term proved popular. In the Anglicised spelling taximeter it was used in a London newspaper in 1898 even before the metropolitan meters, of the German type, had gone into operation. Taximeter soon permanently replaced the German name.

These early devices were, of course, fitted to horse-drawn hansom cabs or growlers (so called because of the noise their iron-hooped wheels made on London cobbles). There was some argument over what to call these new metered vehicles. While the official designation for any vehicle plying for hire was hackney carriage, everybody called them cabs (a short form of cabriolet, the French name for a light horse-drawn two-wheeled vehicle that had been indirectly borrowed from the Latin word for goat because of its bounding motion). A metered hire vehicle was clearly enough a taximeter cab, but this was too unwieldy for daily use.

Motorised vehicles began to appear in substantial numbers during the first decade of the new century, all being fitted with meters from the outset. In March 1907, the Daily Chronicle remarked that “Every journalist ... has his idea of what the vehicle should be called” and went on to list motor-cab, taxi-cab, and taximo among the options touted. (Motor-cab had been recorded as early as 1897 in London and soon after in Washington DC, but for an electric hire vehicle, not the internal combustion one that had almost totally usurped it by this date.) By November 1907 the Daily Mail had begun to refer to a “taxi”, in inverted commas as befitted a colloquial term not yet admitted to the standard lexicon. In February 1908, the Daily Chronicle noted that the issue had been resolved: “Within the past few months the ‘taxi’ has been the name given to the motor-cab.” Since then, of course, it has spread greatly, though never ousting cab from the language.

That isn’t the whole story. Of the words on the list that the Daily Chronicle produced in March 1907, one other did well, though not so much in the UK. Taxicab is on record from as early as December 1907 in New York and it has survived in the US.

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Page created 24 Jul. 2010

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Last modified: 24 July 2010.