Hack Writers and Falconry: What’s the connection?

Scout, a harrier, gets his reward from Master Falconer Nancy Cowan

Scout, a harrier, gets his reward from Master Falconer Nancy Cowan

One of the most popular sports of the Middle Ages was falconry, the art of training a bird of prey to hunt on its master’s behalf. There are places today, like the New Hampshire School of Falconry, where you can still get a taste of this ancient sport–and let me tell you, there’s no thrill like that of having a hawk fly to your fist (even if it means clutching a dead chick in your hand to entice it).

Yeah, E. C., pretty cool, but what does that have to do with being a hack? Nowadays, the term “hack” as applied to a writer, means (to quote the venerable Oxford English Dictionary) “a literary drudge. . . a poor writer, a mere scribbler.” Ouch. But the origin of the term is much older, and referred to a lifestyle of wage service, if you will, the idea that the hack was for hire for any role suitable to his or her talents (yes, the writer definition appears just above “prostitute.”)

In fact, it owes its etymology to the feeding of falcons or eyas hawks (those in training). After their capture, the birds learn to trust humans during a training period in which the bird comes to expect meals from its master, rather than hunting freely. These meals were served on a board referred to as a “hack,” probably from the earlier meaning of the word relating to cutting or chopping. “Being at hack” spread to imply other sorts of limited freedom, in which the hack was supported by others, employing his or her skills on their behalf, and not fully at liberty to choose or refuse jobs.

Before the falcons or the writers, “hack” also refers to horses for hire–an abbreviation of the word “hackney.” Hey–that sounds familiar! As well it should. A horse-for-hire broke down quickly, showing its age, and, while serviceable, became progressively less desirable the more worn-out it was. Leading, in the 1700’s, to the term “hackneyed” for those worn-out phrases so many hacks still rely on today.

About E. C. Ambrose

I spend as much time in my office as I possibly can--thinking up terrible things to do to people who don't exist.
This entry was posted in etymology, history, medieval, research, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Hack Writers and Falconry: What’s the connection?

  1. Michelle says:

    Horses & hawks in the same post! Sister is happy! And interesting historical notes on the word origins, too.

  2. Fascinating and informative as usual! In my WIP (I hope, not hack work!) The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, whicht I’m serializing on http://termitewriter.blogspot.com, my starship Captain is a falconer, or was in his younger days. At the Space Academy he was part of the falconers’ club and flew a merlin named Ariana (“silver” in Welsh). Later, when he serves as commander of the first ship to fly to another star system, he names the ship Ariana after the bird (and secretly to honor his mother, whose given name was Sterling). So I have a considerable interest in falconry. Any falconers in your books?

  3. I haven’t written my falconer book(s) yet–but I will! I’ve been intrigued with birds of prey all my life. Have to say, I enjoyed the bird-aliens in The Termite Queen: they were marvelously bird-like in thought and presence.

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