Monday, January 30, 2012


G. K. Chesterton, in a book published in 1908, mentions a “taximeter cab.” This is a shortened form of “taximeter cabriolet,” which refers to a two-wheeled, one-horse carriage available for hire and equipped with a taximeter, a machine that would automatically measure the distance traveled and cleverly calculate the fare. (The tip is up to you.) This form of transport was introduced in London only a year earlier, in 1907, and is the source of the modern taxicab or just plain taxi.

Taximeter is a word derived from the French taximètre and the German Taxameter. Taxa is Middle Latin for “tax” or “charge,” and meter is from the Greek metron (“measure”).

The taximeter was invented in 1891 by a German engineer, Wilhelm Bruhn. Cabbies were not uniformly pleased with a device that limited what they could charge passengers to a sum they sometimes regarded as inaccurate and always as insufficient.  To show their feelings, several high-spirited drivers tossed Bruhn into the Spree River in Berlin.  Apparently he was able to emerge from it safely, but after that he undoubtedly walked a lot rather than hailing cabs.

As early as 1911 the verb taxi was used, for an airplane, to mean “moving slowly under its own power.” Webster, the OED, and the Online Etymological Dictionary all demurely decline to speculate about how the word came to be used in that way, but presumably it was a reference to the short-term movement of planes between runway and gate, analogous to the short trips made by a taxicab.

Similarly, A taxi-dancer, a term first used about 1930, is a person (usually female) available for short-term hire as a partner in a dance-hall.  One such was immortalized in the 1930 Rodgers and Hart song “Ten Cents A Dance” (“All that you need is a ticket, / Come on, big boy, ten cents a dance.”)

The taxi squad of a football team, which dates to 1960, is reputedly so called because Arthur B. “Mickey” McBride, owner of the Cleveland Browns, would hire his reserve players to work at his taxicab company in order to keep them on the payroll.  Thus taxi squad came to mean injured or otherwise inactive players.

A Tijuana taxi is truckers’ and CBers’ slang for a police car with flashing lights or other prominent markings.

The Bard of Buffalo Bayou once applied for work as a taxi-dancer and wound up parking cars.  He gave that up for driving iambs and dactyls around, but, as you will note, usually off the meter.

            I hailed a taxi
            In Cotopaxi,
            And my ride was quite deplorable.
            I failed to veto
            A trip to Quito,
            Which was not Ecuadorable.
            I gave a shout:
            “Just let me out!
            Your driving’s out of order!”
            But we just went faster,
            And I sensed disaster
            As we headed for the border.
            I plied the driver,
            With a ten and a fiver,
            And then with rums and brandies,
            But he pushed the pedal
            Right to the metal,
            And we drove up into the Andes.
            It was then I knew
            We were in Peru,
            A useless piece of trivia,
            For the crazy cabbie
            Was turning crabby
            As we crossed into Bolivia.
            At that moment, alas,
            We ran out of gas
            And sank in Lake Titicaca.
            The rest of my journey
            Was made on a gurney,
            On the back of an ancient alpaca.


  1. Didn't I meechu in Machu Picchu?

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