Word Origin: Bicycle

The simple invention that revolutionised transport


It may seem hard to believe today, but when the bicycle was invented, it constituted a major leap in technology. People didn’t have to depend on horses or carts, and could speed by on their own power. Flemish writer Stijn Streuvels writes that the new machine was like a revelation, and everyone wondered how something so simple had not been invented earlier.


The new contraption got different names in different countries. As it evolved, the names kept changing. Coined around 1868, the term bicycle itself was a replacement for original term velocipede. Though other names were introduced later, bicycle was the one that stuck.


Perhaps it is the simplicity of the term that has not let it fade away. It is a composite of bi, which means ‘two’, and cycle, meaning ‘circle’ or ‘wheel’. The word bicycle clearly implies that it is a vehicle with two wheels.


Many believe the word was coined by the French, and the British also take credit for it. To quote Streuvels, “The French, as always when they have to name something new, 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.’ 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.”


David Perry in his book Bike Cult writes that bicycle appeared on an 1869 British velocipede patent by J I Stassen, and quickly gained popularity. “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 pedalling a bicycle),” he writes.


The naming and renaming of bicycles hasn’t stopped yet. Some years ago, the phrase Human Powered Vehicles (HPV) was formed for vehicles that could be driven with human energy. Of course, cycles are on top of the list. Not many use the phrase.


At a New York bike conference in 1989, cycling activist Mary Frances Dunham suggested a new name for motorfree vehicles, ‘morfs.’ “She described terramorfs as land vehicles, mermorfs for the water, airmorfs for flight, and ideomorfs propelled by thoughts,” Perry writes.


In Kannada slang, saikal hodeyodu (cycling) means ‘to tire from effort’. In everyday English usage, we have long ago dropped the bi and use just cycle. If we say bicycle, people may give us surprised looks, suggesting that we are from the last century. The word cycle too may soon fade away, with the cooler-sounding bike replacing it. Though bike is commonly used for cycles in the West, in India it is used mainly for motorcycles. With cycles coming back into fashion, it may not be long before we find an even more fashionable name for them.


You can also read this piece at http://talkmag.in/cms/columns/keywords


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