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.