Etymology of Dutch word for bicycle cracked after 140 years

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Two Flemish linguists of Ghent University in Belgium have finally pinpointed the historical origin of the Dutch word ‘fiets’ (‘bicycle’, sounds exactly like ‘feats’). They claim it comes from the German word ‘Vize’ (pronounced ‘vietse’, almost rhymes with ‘pizza’), which means the same as the English ‘vice’ (like in Vice-President, a ‘deputy’ president). In this case, it’s a surrogate horse, a ‘vice horse’. And a ‘vice horse’ is understood to be a bicycle.

The Dutch word ‘fiets’ was very different from the French word ‘vélocipède’, where the bicycle originated from in 1870, the English word and the German word ‘Fahrrad’. The French abbreviation ‘vélo’ couldn’t possibly have turned into ‘fiets’. A man called E.C. Viets from Wageningen started making bicycles around 1880, which was often quoted as a possible origin, but that was historically incorrect.

One day, one of the linguists was pouring some cider for a German colleague from a region who called it ‘Vize’ (vice-wine, surrogate wine), although in Dutch it could have sounded like the German had said ‘bad wine’ (‘vies’ in Dutch means ‘dirty’ or ‘bad quality’ in this case). But the German was speaking German and meant to say ‘surrogate wine’, ‘Vize’ being used for all kinds of surrogate things in his region of Germany.

The German ‘Vize-Pferd’ (‘surrogate horse’) was discovered by the linguists in written documents and then they found German dialect words ‘Fitz’ and ‘Fietse’, which was the missing link to ‘fiets’. A lot of Dutch words come from German, but for some reason, ‘Vize’, a bit like saying ‘bike’ or ‘vélo’ never made it over the German border.

(Link: www.standaard.be)

7 Comments »

  1. It is disappointing, this vice-pferd derivation of fiets. Kind of hard to believe too, if you ask me. No, the words fiets imitates the sound a passing bike makes, esp. in the 19th century, when there was hardly any motorized traffic to compete with, except perhaps the odd steam locomotive. Come to think of it, the word fiets could also echo, as it were, the sound of escaping steam. I could go on but do not wish to persuade the reader that I am right. I rather like it when everyone else is wrong.

    Comment by Ted Schrey Montreal — April 15, 2012 @ 10:53 pm

  2. Etymology is history and you need written proof, not an emotional attachment to a theory. I am happy someone finally came up with something.

    Comment by Orangemaster — April 18, 2012 @ 1:41 pm

  3. There is thought an alterior explanation: The french inventor of the very early walking bicycles, mr. Drais, registered a patent for his invention, the Draisienne model, calling it: “Machine a courir á grande vitesse.” A ´machine for running fast´. Now the word ‘vitesse’ phoneticaly resembles the word ‘fiets’ much more and since the first bicycles like this here came from France, it makes sense to suggest the word has something to do with it. They may have called it a ‘vitesse’. Like we have the TGV, the ‘Train a Grande Vitesse’, today, and still a soccerteam in Arnhem is called Vitesse too. So in the early 1800’s we than had the revolutionary invention from france. The walking bike did not beat the horse yet, back than though. Furthermore, is the fact that the Dutch language lends a lot of it´s ´vocabulaire´ from the French latin laguage. The word ´machine´ also from France. That is a long, long list of words. So, of this there is historic documentation, but if it solves the mystery?

    Comment by De Fietsenmaker — July 25, 2013 @ 9:03 pm

  4. I like the idea of bastardizing ‘vitesse’ to sound like ‘fiets’. Sounds plausible.

    There are many French words in the Dutch language, but that’s not an etymoligical explanation.

    The problem is that it needs to have been written somewhere for there to be a link. But I like your theory :)

    Comment by Orangemaster — July 27, 2013 @ 10:12 am

  5. I think Ted Schrey is mistaken in thinking that a 19th Century iron-shod velocipede on a dirt track would sound anything like a 21st Century very high-pressure tyre on a tarmac road.

    I wondered about the origin of this word, not knowing it was so obscure, just curious that it was so different from any other European word for a bicycle. The “Vize” explanation seems to me to be only good if the German region where it is used is anywhere near Holland. However, the notion of a “vice-horse” is not so far-fetched. It was certainly common in England to refer to bicycles as “steeds” (i.e. horses).

    The “vitesse” sounds more likely, but clearly some evidence will be needed before this can be accepted. My own thought (before I had found this discussion) was that “fiets” is an abbreviation, equivalent to “bike” in English, but obviously if that were the case everyone would know it.

    If a corruption of “vitesse” is plausible, what about a corruption of “wiels”?

    Comment by David Rodd — June 29, 2014 @ 10:00 am

  6. ‘Disappointing’, ‘hard to believe’, ‘thought to be …’, ‘it makes sense to suggest …’, ‘may have called it …’, ‘likely, ‘plausible’, ‘far-fetched’ – all speculation, as Orangemaster has said. Every language has many unlikely-sounding but proven etymologies, and there are also many popular but unfounded ones.

    Comment by Maurice Waite — August 5, 2017 @ 12:37 pm

  7. There’s an amusing little footnote to this: Afrikaans is a dialect of Dutch so also uses fiets. But there is a joke name for bicycle- baiesukkel which means “a lot of effort”!

    Comment by David Gibbon — March 23, 2021 @ 5:28 pm

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