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Hijacking': From the Theft of Bootleg Liquor to Taking Jets in Flight

05/28/2021 | 02:43pm EDT

By Ben Zimmer

Linguist and lexicographer Ben Zimmer analyzes the origins of words in the news.

When Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko forced a Ryanair plane to land in order to arrest a dissident journalist who was on board, international outrage was swift. The CEO of Ryanair, based in Ireland, called the incident "a state-sponsored hijacking." Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin and several other European Union leaders echoed the term.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki was more cautious. "I don't have a new definition of what happened here," she said, adding that the White House, while condemning the action, was "not legally ready to change any of the existing language" regarding the term "hijacking."

Under a narrow definition of "hijacking," what happened to the Ryanair flight might not count. It didn't fit the typical scenario in which someone commandeers a plane from the inside, such as by coercing the pilot at gunpoint. (The flight, bound for Vilnius, was forced to divert to Minsk because authorities from Belarus claimed there was a bomb threat. The journalist Roman Protasevich was arrested on arrival.)

The meaning of "hijacking" has never been entirely straightforward, and the term's origins, while dating back a little over a century, perplex etymologists to this day.

Last December, Gerald Cohen, a professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, devoted an issue of his "Comments on Etymology" periodical series to the latest research into the emergence of the verb "hijack." Several of the earliest known examples in print are clustered in Oklahoma in the 1910s. Oklahoma had recently become a state and enshrined the prohibition of alcohol in its constitution, which led to the widespread bootlegging of liquor -- and the frequent robbery of liquor from vehicles transporting it.

An article in the Dec. 13, 1915 issue of the Record-Herald in Miami, Okla., first discovered by Stephen Goranson, a researcher at Duke University, reports that "a new word has been coined" to describe "free-lance bandits" on the roadways holding up those transporting illicit liquor: "hi-jackers." (Confusingly, the article also refers to them as "hi-packers," but that may be a typo.)

The article suggests these "hi-jackers" were arriving in Oklahoma from Missouri, which would accord with a theory Mr. Cohen has proposed for the term's origin. In southwest Missouri, some locals claim that the word "hijack" arose in the context of zinc mining. Zinc was locally called "jack," so "hi-jack" could refer to high-grade zinc ore that some miners pilfered.

While the evidence for that theory is scant, it's clear that once the term caught on for booze bandits in Oklahoma, it spread to other kinds of holdups. A 1916 magazine article on " Oil Field Talk" defined "high-jack" as "a bandit or stick-up man (they are plentiful in the oil fields)."

In the Prohibition era, "hijacking" became firmly associated with stealing bootlegged liquor or smuggled goods, often by seizing a vehicle on the highway. The theory favored by Mr. Goranson is that "hijacking" is best understood as originally referring to "highway jacking," with "jack" meaning "lift" or "hold up."

As early as 1948, "hijacking" got applied to seizing vehicles in the sky. That's when, as the Edmonton Journal put it, "twenty anti-Communist Czechs...hijacked a transport plane in mid-air and flew it to the U.S. zone of Germany." A 1961 headline in the New York Mirror introduced a new portmanteau word for the phenomenon: "Pan Am Jet Skyjacked to Havana."

After "skyjacking" came other blends like "carjacking" and "yacht-jacking," both dating to the early 1970s. The digital age has given us "cyberjacking," in which hackers remotely take control of computer systems, as well as "clickjacking," or tricking a website user into clicking on a hyperlink. A Facebook-specific kind of clickjacking is "likejacking," in which scammers fool a user into "liking" a post or page.

The word "hijack" has been commandeered for all sorts of purposes. Should we call that "hijack-jacking?"

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-28-21 1643ET

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