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Naming the Bicycle

by David Perry from Bike Cult

Throughout its time, in its various shapes and incarnations, the bicycle has collected a long list of names which help illustrate its ubiquity. Naming an invention can be difficult because it should be a perfect fit, a "living word" that relates the function and character of the device. As the invention evolves in technology and culture, the name must continue to "live" or else be replaced.

To describe early bicycle-like machines, many inventors, critics, and scholars combined various root-words until the Franco-Greco-Latin word "vélocipède" (velox: fast + ped: feet) became the first international name. The velocipede itself became a root-word for creative additions such as velocipedomania (a social phenomenon), velocipathy (a natural exercise and general development to every muscle of the body), velocinasium and velocipedarium (indoor cycling halls), velocipedestrienne (a female cyclist), velocipedagogue (a professor of cycling), velocipedestrination (the act of cycling), velocipedraniavaporiana (hot and heavy breathing while cycling), and the 40-letter word that competes with the longest of all English nouns, velocipedestrianisticalistinarianologist (one who studies the study of studying cycling).

The word "bicycle" appeared on an 1869 British velocipede patent by J.I. Stassen and in a few years the name was commonly applied to high-wheelers. Bicycle (a two-wheeled velocipede) became a root-word for an activity, such as bicycled, bicycling, and bicyclism (the art of bicycling), for a person, such as a bicycler, bicyclian, and bicyclist; and for anything pertaining to or connected with the nature of bicycles, such as bicyclic, bicyclical, bicycular, and bicycle kick (in soccer, a kick made with both feet off the ground and moving the legs as if pedaling a bicycle). The bicycle's root-word is cycle, with cycling, cyclism (practice of the cyclist), cycler, cycleman (one who cycles), cycledom (the world of cycles and cyclists), and cyclometer (cycle odometer). Cycle also appears in the middle of some bike-related words, such as amphcyclotheatrus and gymnocyclidium (velocipede riding schools), and encycleopedia (a book about cycling).

Among the world's languages there are many concise, living root-words, such as velo (French), bike and cycle (English), bici (Italian), cykel (Swedish), fiets (Dutch), rad (German), rower (Polish), sepeda (Indonesian), and birota (Vatican Latin: two-wheeler). The word bike (and byke) in Scottish predates the bicycle yet its meaning and use is somehow similar: "a crowd or swarm of people," as in "the lads about me biket."

The Flemish author Stijn Streuvels described the naming of the bicycle in his Collected Works:

I think of our Flemish word "rijwiel" for "bicycle." Has any machine ever become so popular, so widespread in so short a time, and have we ever had more difficulty in finding a name for it? The new machine was like a revelation, everyone wondered how something so simple could have remained unknown for so long, why it had taken so long to discover it. Each nation gave it a name of its own in their own language. The French had little trouble with this and, as always when they have to name something new, they took a piece of Greek and a piece of Latin and stuck them together, giving us the "velocipede."

For everyday use, however, this name proved too long and too cumbersome for something so speedy, and they shortened it to "velo." We Flemings, however, who seldom take the trouble to invent a new word and prefer to borrow from our neighbors, but then try to find some kind of related concept in the foreign word, changed it into "vlosse-peerd" (literally: "floss-horse" or "floss-machine"). The authorities, however, produced "rijwiel," "schrijwiel," "trapwiel," "wielpeerd" and finally "fiets," which in Holland at least proved to be the "living word." The English went about the task in their customary rational manner and came up with "bicycle," "wheel," or simply "cycle," which became the real name, the true name. The practical Germans started with "Fahrrad" and ended with "Rad."

The growing family of cycling machines inspired many attempts to rename and categorize them. The name "human-powered vehicles" came about as a generic way of making the point that people can transport themselves with their own energy in unlimited ways. Many people feel this is not a "living" phrase, even though the human is combined as driver and power source. As a vehicle it opens up possibilities and reflects a new paradigm for cycling machines. Like many phrases of its day, it comes with the acronym HPV (prounouned "_ch-pee-vee"), which some folks thought was DOA. Mike Burrows describes the HPV dilemma in "My Other Bike is a Recumbent" from Encycleopedia 1993/94:

Mention the initials HPV to the average person and you usually get a blank look. Mention them to a cyclist and you will either get a beaming smile and be told they are the greatest, or a growl and some mutterings about going under lorries.

Another way of naming cycles appeared at a New York bike conference in 1989, when Mary Frances Dunham proposed "a terminology for the universe of Motor-Free Vehicles, "Morfs." She described Terramorfs as land vehicles, Mermorfs for the water, Airmorfs for flight, and Ideomorfs propelled by thoughts. If 100 years from now there is a further synthesis of body, mind, and machine in cycles, we humans may become biocyclists riding cybercles.

Update Wednesday, March 2, 2011
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