European studies blog

Exploring Europe at the British Library

30 July 2014

FIETS (n): Origins Unknown

Following on from a previous post related to the Tour de France, this piece talks about the Dutch word ‘Fiets’. At first glance the word doesn’t seem to bear any resemblance to its equivalents in English (bicycle), French (vélo) or German (Fahrrad) and it was this realisation that prompted a spat of research on its etymology.

First port of call was the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, or Dictionary of the Dutch Language (WNT). The WNT is the largest etymological dictionary in the world, in any language. It is available online, but the British Library holds a copy on the open shelves in the Humanities 1 reading room (HLR 439.313).

Despite its erudition the WNT doesn’t provide a satisfactory etymology for the word ‘fiets’. It offers two possible sources, neither are conclusive.  Not much fun there, then.

  Picture of a late 19th-century man's bicycle
Image taken from page 211 of The Z.Z.G. or the Zig Zag Guide round and about the beautiful Kentish coast (London, 1897) 10352.g.28.

Some more digging around in the catalogue brought up a title that proved to be just the ticket. Ewoud Sanders’ Fiets! (The Hague, 1996; YA.2002.a.1177), brings together columns previously published in the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad. The little book is beautifully bound in a hard grey cover, and printed in the best of Dutch printing traditions. In eight chapters, or ‘étappes’ (stages) Sanders discusses the various theories on the origins of the word ‘fiets’, as offered by etymologists, journalists and cycle fanatics alike. Apparently, no other word has kept the Dutch and Flemish so pre-occupied as ‘fiets’. When the bicycle was introduced to the Low Countries from France, it was knows as a ‘vélocipède. At the Language and Literary Congress in Leuven in 1869 heated discussions were held over the question whether a Dutch language variant should be found and if so, which one. Shortly after this congress cycling took off in The Netherlands, which had to have consequences for the vocabulary associated with it.

Fiets! gives a fascinating account of the history of cycling in the Low Countries as well as of the development of the word ‘fiets’. The WNT is mentioned several times, because its editors were heavily involved in the discussions around it. The bibliography reflects the fascination people had with ‘fiets’ and includes over 50 titles, ranging from the WNT to letters from the archives of the ANWB, the Dutch equivalent of The AA.

In the end Sanders supports the theory that ‘fiets’ originates in the vernacular as spoken by Dutch school boys, back in the 1870s. That is probably why the word was considered to be a sort of ‘F’ word by the educated classes. How different things are these days.

The Dutch language abounds in expressions around ‘fiets’ or ‘fietsen’, (to cycle), which proves just how much ‘fiets’ has become firmly settled in the Dutch language, just like the article itself has become an icon of Dutch culture. Sanders doesn’t go into this, but cycling (whipping) through the ‘Van Dale’ dictionary (Van Dale groot woordenboek, door W. Martin en G.A.J. Tops. (Utrecht, 1984-1986) HLR 439.313) will clarify how it is you can have a ‘bicycle rack’ in your mouth, as in when you have ‘gappy teeth’. If you suddenly see where I’m coming from, you may exclaim: ‘Oh, op die fiets!’ (‘Oh, on that bike!’).

Thieves’ slang gives a clue on how much a stolen bike would sell for one hundred years ago. A ‘Fiets’ to them is two ‘thalers’, or five guilders. Thieves also may have used bicycles to get away on; hence the use of ‘fiets’ for ‘arms and legs’. When by now you’ve had enough of me, you’re probably telling me to get on my bike, just like the Dutch say: ‘Ga toch fietsen!’  

Marja Kingma, Curator Low Countries Studies

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