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Origins of the word ‘taxi’.

Taxi is a word in regular use that is understood across the globe. When abroad, we may have trouble ordering a pint, finding out where the nearest public convenience is, or when the next bus will arrive; but we can usually recognise a taxi when we see one. A good thing too, with Christmas on the way and the party season in full flow.

The word, taxi, is commonly regarded as an abbreviation of taxicab. Various dictionaries will explain that the word derives from the Latin word, taxa, meaning charge, assessment or tax; and taxare, meaning to assess or to tax.  Fast forward to the nineteenth century, when a German entrepreneur named Friedrich Bruhn and associates invented a device, originally referred to as a ‘taxameter,’ that could be put into cabs to monitor various aspects of any journey undertaken, including cost.

It wasn’t long before ‘taximeters’ were being fitted into cabs used commercially. Originally these were horse drawn cabs, but the devise was proving useful, and the idea was transferred to the new-fangled motorised taxicabs that soon became known as taxis. Which all sounds very rational, and an illustration of how useful words get adopted, adapted, and abbreviated.

But Robert Winston, in his book, Bad Ideas? about how some of our creative ideas for improving life don’t always work out as planned, puts forward another suggestion and gives the credit to Italy. According to him, there was a Lombard family called Tassis. In around 1450, Ruggiero de Tassis, devised a courier system between Bergamo and Verona. This proved very successful and, throughout the rest of the fifteenth century and into the sixteenth century, his descendants expanded the system across large chunks of Europe. It was, in Winston’s version, a small step from ‘tassis’ to ‘taxi.’ And taxis, as you know, whilst we usually associate them with couriering people from A to B, are still sometimes used to ferry goods about

So, when you hail a taxi in Thailand, England, America, France, Spain, wherever …, climb in and watch the meter ticking over as you speed (or crawl) towards your destination, should you be mindful of the German inventiveness that is monitoring what you will owe at the end of your journey? Or the Italian development of convenient transport tailored, to the customer’s needs?

(This is a repeat post from my blog in May 2017)

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