Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Taxi by Any Other Name

By Patricia Winton

In 1971, a grad school classmate showed me an ad for The Book of the Month Club which offered the new Compact Edition of The Oxford English Dictionary as a low-cost premium for joining. She made the case that signing up for a trial period was worth the price to get the OED, even if I spent my enrollment purchases on seedy romances. And she was right.

At the time the OED was a thirteen-volume work, condensed in the concise version to two large volumes, reduced to very fine print. The set came with a slip case for the two volumes and a little drawer above for the magnifying glass required for reading it. It sat on my shelf for thirty years until I sold it on eBay before moving to Italy in 2002.

I miss it. I loved to search for the first published use of an English word and be taken on a journey through English prose. Even more fun, I loved to open to a random page and put my finger on an entry to learn about a word.

My enthusiasm for this exercise sometimes came to a sad end. I once took the set to a class I was teaching at Virginia Tech and tried to get my students to share my enthusiasm. It was a dismal defeat. They were bored. The entry I showed them was for “taxi.” They yawned. I hope you’ll find it more interesting.

The original term for what we today call a taxi or a cab was taximeter cabriolet. The cabriolet half is from the French cabriole, which in the 19th century, meant to caper or jump like a young goat, from the Latin capri. The term identified a two-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage that tended to careen left and right as it traveled, reminding people of a baby goat at play. 

Today, in French, cabriolet can mean convertible (as in the car), perhaps because the original cabriolet carriage had a folding leather hood that could be raised over the two occupants to protect them from the rain or pushed back to expose them to the wind and sun. The cabriolet also had a leather lap robe to protect the occupants from mud splatters.

The taximeter part of the term comes from the German taxe, meaning a charge or a measure of costs. Invented by Wilhelm Bruhn in 1891, the taximeter originally clung to the wheel on the driver’s side, counting the revolutions.

Wilhelm Bruhn
The cabriolet carriage first entered England in 1823 before the invention of the taximeter. The English immediately shortened the name to cab. When the meters came across the Channel, the taximeter cabriolet became taxi cab. Now we say, “taxi” or “cab,” but rarely both.

I’ve had a few bouncing cab rides, lurching through city streets as I imagine the original cabriolet did. But they have reminded me less of a goat at play and more like a charging bull.

Visit me at where I write on alternate Thursday about all things Italian.


  1. Great post, Patricia! I still have my compact OED - my dad got each of us one with his several book club memberships (he was prolific with pseudonyms...). Word history is fascinating.

    My favorite dictionary is the American Heritage, where you can look up the Indo-European root for a word and see all the other words it is related to. For example, if you looked up the root for 'direct' you would find it is *-reg, meaning 'straight.' This same root is found in 'rex' 'Raj' 'rectum' 'regal' 'erect' and so many more! Isn't that fun? ;^)

  2. Thanks, Edith. What a great gift from your dad. I also love the American Heritage Dictionary. We analyzed dictionaries in grad school, and it came out on top. I have the unabridged, in paper and on the computer. I use it a lot. Interesting about "direct." That must be from Latin. In Italy when you ask people for directions, 50 percent of the time the reply is, "sempre dritto," straight ahead.

  3. How interesting. I have always loved "reading dictionaries". So much to learn from, so much fun. Thanks.

    1. Marianne, I love the concept of reading dictionaries. It's an image I'm going to hold on to.

  4. I bought my compact OED with part of the money I won in a drawing in the early days of Springfield Mall in suburban Virginia. With the prize money, I also bought a pair of shoes for my daughter for a high school junior prom.

    1. Lenny, you put that prize money to good use--with both purchases.