by Our Bicycle Lives

Even before I liked bicycles, I liked their name. I enjoyed enunciating the word, starting with the solid ‘b’ sound then pronouncing the soft ‘c’ followed by a hard ‘c’ and ending with a nimble ‘l’. It is an honest word, with a literal, what-you-see-is-what-you-get meaning: ‘two wheels’. Whoever played Name That Thing when the term was coined in the 1860s didn’t look too far: a bit of Greek here (‘kuklos’, wheels) and of Latin there (‘bi’, two) to create one hybrid word which encapsulates the machine’s most notable characteristic, a pair of wheels in line. I am grateful for this imaginative touch, however timid. To think that I could be riding a plain ‘birota’, the 100% pure Latin word for bicycle used in Vatican City today, hasn’t quite got the same ring to it.

Although I commonly use the shortened ‘bike’, it is ambiguous and I am conscious that I could be mistaken for a helmeted, leather-clad motorcyclist. So I prefer bicycle. Its simplicity contrasts with the cumbersome names that preceded or followed it: draisine, velocipede, penny-farthing, boneshaker, ordinary (who would like to own an ordinary?) or the archaic dandy-horse*. I admire the duality of the simple but composite name, with a root, ‘cycle’, which resonates on several levels and provides a wealth of metaphors and wordplays. At the same time, bicycle is such a graphic word that I can visualise its object, the two ‘c’s as the wheels, the descender of the letter ‘y’ as the pedals and the ascender of the ‘l’ as the sit-up-and-beg handlebars. And ‘bi’ as a child seat! Such an enduring name for the first human-powered vehicle that it is now living through its third century.

As we know, names reflect status and language labels stick more surely than post-it notes, and we establish deeper emotional connections with some words than with others. A gearless bike doesn’t sound nearly as desirable as a single-speed. Some languages were in luck – the Spanish ‘bicicleta’, like a lovely laugh bringing up vivid images of summer dresses and radiant green foliage (as in the 1984 Jaime Chavarri film Las Bicicletas Son Para El Verano); the swift ‘vélo’; or the cute ‘la petite reine’ (the little queen), French nickname with regal but sweet connotations and a hint of 1950’s retro-fashion – others less so – ‘jalgratas’ in Estonian. English speakers came up with the perfect fit, a neutral name . . . but not too much. Or is it? The antagonism faced by people on bikes today means that the word ‘cyclist’ has become tainted with negative overtones. I dearly hope the contagion doesn’t spread to the bicycle itself.

What’s in a name? Judging by how much has been written about baby names, a lot. But those of us who are cyclists first and foremost may have different priorities. Naming or not naming, that is the real question. Personally, I name bikes because it makes it easier to address them (If you think that sounds weird, fear not, you have a point). By bestowing names upon them, I personalise them and make them my own but also – and here’s the paradox – claim them as companions rather than possessions. I invest emotionally in a relationship which has me responsible for them. So I become their friend, parent and carer all in one. Interestingly, blogging on the subject of naming bicycles inevitably seems to incur strings of comments from cyclists who feel very strongly one way or the other. Many owners of bikes with no name, in particular, find naming ridiculous, undignified or even unmanly. ‘Naming is indescribably lame’ said one. Others mention anthropomorphism. After reading an enlightening comment on the blog She Rides a Bike, I am leaning towards animism: ‘Innately, we believe that we can have bilateral relationships with inanimate objects. People who name their bikes, on some level, expect the affection to be returned.’ Vehicles used for transportation such as trains and boats are traditionally of the female gender but to their owners, some bikes are obviously female and others male, while for others they remain an anonymous ‘it’: superstition perhaps, or fear of attachment, it is truly a love that dares not speak its name.

*In a striking overview, Robert Penn traces the origin of the bicycle – the mechanical horse – to the shortage of horses following poor harvests and famine caused by a volcanic eruption in 1815 which blocked out solar radiation.