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Word of the Day: rijwiel (bicycle)

Do you know the expression: ‘zo heb je een fiets, zo heb je niets’? One moment you own a bike and the next moment you have nothing. Unfortunately all too true in this country where 4-5% of all bikes are being stolen each year. So don’t forget to lock your FIETS to a lamppost. Or is it a RIJWIEL that you own?


RIJWIEL is the old-fashioned and elegant twin brother of FIETS. Both words were born around the same time. Round 1870. RIJWIEL was the posh word and FIETS was used by the average man. In 1968 the law replaced RIJWIEL by FIETS. I don’t know anyone who calls his or her bike a RIJWIEL.

In 1996 a fascinating little book about the origin of the word FIETS was published by lexicographer Ewoud Sanders. It is simply called: ‘Fiets!’ Sanders tells us about his explorations in the archives and he arrives at several interesting conclusions.

In 1867 in Paris father and son Michaux had launched their iron steed with pedals on the front wheel and named their invention ‘vélocipède’. Two years later a Mr Burgers started the first Dutch factory of wooden vélocipèdes in Deventer. This French word was derived from two Latin words: velox, ‘fast’ and pes, ‘foot’. So vélocipède literally means ‘fast foot’.

This new-fashioned means of transport was so expensive that only the wealthy could afford it between 1869 and 1885. Of course the Dutch felt that they had to give it a proper Dutch name. In 1869 several words were suggested at a conference in Louvain such as ‘wieler’ and ‘zelfkar’. None of them, however, made a lasting impression.

That same year in Utrecht a man of letters by name of Alfred Buijs (friend of Multatuli, author of the famous novel ‘Max Havelaar’) coined the words RIJWIEL, WIELRIJDER (cyclist) and WIELRIJDEN (cycling), and those words are still in use.

So where does the word FIETS come from? Is it an onomatopoeic word, an echo of fffttttssss, the sound of silent velocity? Was it short for vélocipède, a word that the average Dutchman could not pronounce? ‘Vielesepee, fiesselepee, fietsepee, fiets…’ Was it a reference to Mr Elie Cornelis Viets who rented out the first vélocipèdes in 1889 and later invented the ‘Automatic Cycle Teacher’, an indoor cycling machine?

Sanders comes up with a feasible solution. He found out that there was a dialect word from eastern and southern Netherlands ‘vietsen’, which means ‘move or run fast’. FIETS must have come into being out of this dialect word, a word favoured by schoolkids. Once the bicycle had become affordable and popular among people from the working-class, the posh word RIJWIEL was overtaken by the more common FIETS.

Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about FIETSISM and the FIETSIST.