Jill Lepore, in her New Yorker essay on bicycles (archived), describes their origin story thus:

A few years back, the bicentennial of the bicycle wheeled past at breakneck, bike-messenger speed. In 1817, Baron Karl von Drais, the Master of the Woods and Forests to the Duke of Baden, invented a contraption called the Laufmaschine, or running machine. A climate crisis had led to a great dying off of livestock, including horses, especially in Germany. Drais meant for the Laufmaschine to be a substitute for the horse. It had a wooden frame, a leather saddle, two in-line wheels, and no pedals; you sort of scooted around on it, and a full-grown man could pick up pretty good speed. (“On descent it equals a horse at full speed,” Drais wrote.) In England, Laufmaschinen were called “swiftwalkers.”

I was, of course, curious about this alleged “swiftwalkers,” a word I didn’t recall ever having seen. Sure enough, it is unknown to the OED. [Not true — it’s there, but hyphenated; see Jen’s comment below.] That doesn’t mean that it didn’t exist, so I turned to Google Books, where I got a lot of hits of the type “About 1817, Baron Karl von Drais of Germany created the Swiftwalker, an improved wooden model with iron wheels and no pedals” and “Another early 19th Century version was called the ‘Swiftwalker.’” Clearly, Lepore picked it up from some such modern history. But when I restricted my search to the 19th century, I got exactly two hits, to The Velocipede: Its History, Varieties, and Practice by J. T. Goddard (1869) and Digest of Cycles Or Velocipedes with Attachments Patented in the United States, from 1789 to 1892, Volume 1 (1892)… and when I clicked through and searched within the books, I got “no results found.” When I restricted my search to the 20th century, I got hits like “Dubbed the dandy horse, the swiftwalker, the velocipede, hobby, and the running machine, von Drais’s invention took off” and “The velocipede gained rapid popularity in France, and almost immediately migrated to England, where it was known variously as a Draisine, Swiftwalker, Hobby Horse, Dandy Horse, or Pedestrian Curricle.”

So my current theory is that someone joining the throng of people trying to cash in on the new craze decided to call their version a Swiftwalker; some later historian happened on this obscure and forgotten term, thought it was colorful, and added it to their collection of colorful terms (I have to say I myself am particularly fond of “Pedestrian Curricle”); and such lists proliferated in the same way as lists of supposed names for groups of animals (the “exaltation of larks” phenomenon), so that any later writer on the subject could pluck out whatever pleased them, and “swiftwalker” pleased Lepore. All well and good, and there would be nothing wrong with saying something like “In England, Laufmaschinen were called many things, including ‘swiftwalkers,’” but her actual phrasing suggests that “swiftwalker” was the English word for it, which is flatly untrue. This is the trouble with popularized history, even from actual historians — the temptation to be as colorful as possible leads you into the swamp of error.

(Oh, and Drais’s name is perpetuated in the draisine used on railways.)


  1. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Swiftwalker is just ‘velocipede’ anglicised, isn’t it? More or less, anyway.

    The OED has this under velocipede, although I’m not sure if it’s a name or a translation:

    1819 Monthly Mag. Mar. 156 A machine called the Velocipede, or Swift Walker. Invented by Baron Drais and patented in England by Denis Johnson, coachmaker, of Long Acre, in 1818.

    ETA – Oh, and another under saddle:

    1819 Belles-lettres Repository May 31/2 The Velocipede, or Swift-walker… consists of two wheels, one behind the other, connected by a perch, on which a saddle is placed for the seat of the traveller…

  2. Dammit, foiled by the hyphen! Thanks for the research, and I withdraw at least some of my opprobrium. It clearly was a known term, if not the usual one.

  3. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I genuinely wasn’t sure from either of those whether it was a term, or whether the writer was just clarifying ‘this is what this strange new word velocipede means’, but it was interesting to see it turn up so early on.

    (I found the first quote by accident while checking to see what the OED said about the meaning of velocipede – it wasn’t an attempt to show up your searching skills! It’s not there as a headword, anyway.)

  4. You’d think their search function would be able to suggest hyphenated versions of what you’re looking for.

  5. The Dutch word for bicycle, fiets, has an unestablished or a very opaque etymology, very unusual for a non-slang word of such unambiguous semantics and recent vintage.

  6. Huh. I was going to quote John Cowan from 2018:

    The etymology of fiets was nailed down in 2012, and is almost beyond belief: it is a clipping of a long-obsolete, but recorded, dialectal German word for bicycle, Vize-Pferd ‘vice horse, surrogate horse’. Apparently there is or was a region of German where Vize was usual for an inferior substitute, rather than Ersatz.

    But I see that Wiktionary article says “From German Vize as short for German Vizepferd (“surrogate horse”), a hypothesis launched with some fanfare in 2011 that turned out not to be backed by any evidence.[6][7]” Footnote 6 goes to this article, which supports the hypothesis; 7 goes to this blog post, which “is open to invited readers only.” I am not inclined to trust an unavailable blog post over a published scholarly article. As far as I’m concerned, the Vizepferd suggestion has not been refuted.

    Update: It turns out that the blog post was brought up in that LH thread, and I linked to a Google Translate English version, which fortunately is still accessible; as I said back in 2018: “Now I don’t know what to think.”

  7. Stu Clayton says

    As the front cyclist headed down the final stretch, he could be heard to gasp: “Fiets, don’t fail me now!”

  8. Jill Lepore is always engaging, but when she happens to write about something I know about, it’s about a fifty-fifty chance she’s full of shit.

  9. That’s another problem with popularizing historians — they’re tempted too write too much and too broadly, and like everyone else, once they get out of their field of specialized knowledge they’re likely to be full of shit.

  10. God knows I am… but on the other hand, nobody pays me the big bucks.

  11. @Keith Ivey

    That blog has moved to its own domain.



    It’s a blogpost by Jan Stroop, and, well, in any case I agree that the hypothesis from the original article comes across as a possibiliter fallacy without much supporting evidence.

  12. Yeah, it does sound that way.

  13. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Fiets is one of those words that I find distractingly false-friendy, for some reason. Feets are what you walk around on!

  14. Maxwell M. says

    Since Wikipedia, hence also Wiktionary (mentioned in one of the comments about fiets), requires that all statements be referenced (but not proof that all statements are accurate), any of the entries in Wiktionary may contain any percentage of misinformation.

    Better rely on the Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands, published by the Instituut voor Nederlandse Lexicologie, regularly updated, and available freely online (https://www.etymologie.nl/).

    Its entry is:

    fiets zn. ‘rijwiel’

    categorie: etymologie onduidelijk

    Nnl. viets of fiets [ca. 1870; Sanders 1997b, 25]; dit betreft een persoonlijke waarneming door de voormalige directeur van een Apeldoornse kostschool, in een ingezonden brief in het maandblad De Kampioen van 1901; hij had dit woord destijds gehoord van een van zijn leerlingen. Een onafhankelijke persoonlijke waarneming van fiets, in Leeuwarden, dateert van een jaar later [1871; Sanders 1997b, 21]. Eerste schriftelijke attestatie: viets [1886, Arnhemsche Courant; Sanders 1997b, 20], in hetzelfde jaar ook fiets.

    Herkomst onzeker. Er zijn in de loop van de 20e eeuw vele hypothesen gesteld, maar geen ervan is wetenschappelijk te bewijzen. Voor een uitgebreide samenvatting inclusief literatuurverwijzingen, zie Sanders 1997b. Het meest wrsch. is volgens hem (p. 37-39) de aanname van Linssen (1914) dat viets is ontstaan uit een Zuid-Limburgs dialectisch werkwoord vietse ‘hard lopen, zich snel voortbewegen’ (vergelijk ook Noord-Limburgs fiette in dezelfde betekenis). De Bont (1973) bevestigt dit aan de hand van eenzelfde werkwoord fietsen in een dialect uit de regio Eindhoven. Deze woorden gaan vermoedelijk terug op het Franse bn. vite ‘snel’.

    De minder wrsch. hypothesen zijn: a) fiets is ontstaan als verbastering, via vormen als fieselepee en fietsepee, van vélocipède (zie velo), dat al in 1824 ontleend was aan Frans vélocipède, letterlijk ‘snelvoet’. Waarschijnlijker is echter het omgekeerde: dat fietsepee een contaminerende vorm is onder invloed van fiets. Gedurende lange tijd, zeker nog tot aan de Tweede Wereldoorlog, zijn namelijk beide woorden vélocipède en fiets, naast elkaar gebruikt (vélocipède uiteindelijk nauwelijks nog anders dan schertsend). De vélocipède werd bereden door de hogere klasse, die met wielrijden is begonnen; ook toen het volk ging fietsen, gaf het eerst nog de voorkeur aan het chiquere Franse woord. Het dialectwoord fiets verspreidde zich via school- en dorpsjongens, en kreeg uiteindelijk de overhand, vermoedelijk omdat het veel korter was en er beter afleidingen van konden worden gevormd, zoals het werkwoord fietsen. In officieel en ander schriftelijk taalgebruik heeft dat nog langer geduurd: gedurende een groot deel van de periode na de Tweede Wereldoorlog gaf men daarin de voorkeur aan rijwiel. b) Allerhande voorstellen over tussenwerpsels en klanknabootsingen (ffftsss! en dergelijke) zijn nog minder wrsch. c) Lang is gedacht aan verband met de familienaam Viets of Fiets, die teruggaat op de heiligennaam Vitus. De Wageningse smid Elie Cornelis Viets (1847-1921), aan wie soms de verbreiding van het woord fiets wordt toegeschreven, had zijn bedrijf pas vanaf 1885, dus pas ca. 15 jaar na het eerste voorkomen van het woord fiets. Hij verhuurde vanaf 1889 vélocipèdes en claimde pas later dat de fiets naar hem was genoemd. De chronologie maakt deze aanname onhoudbaar. Als familienaam komt Fiets overigens vooral rond de Veluwe voor [1973; de Bont].

    De verspreiding van het woord is in het Nederlandse spraakgebruik uiteindelijk razendsnel verlopen. Voor het BN mag fiets als een zeer recent en snel aan populariteit winnend leenwoord beschouwd worden; de synoniemen velo (vooral in de dialecten) en rijwiel (vooral in officiële geschriften) zijn in België echter even bekend, en ten opzichte van Nederland wijder verbreid. Buiten het Nederlands komt dit woord alleen nog voor in Fries fyts, Afrikaans fiets (met daarbij het werkwoord fietsry ‘fietsen’) en in Indonesisch pit ‘fiets’ (naast het gewonere sepeda < vélocipède).

    ◆ fietsen ww. 'zich met een fiets voortbewegen'. Nnl. fietsen [1890; Sanders 1997b, 19]. Afleiding van fiets.

    Literatuur: L. Linsen (1914), 'Iets over fiets', in: Bijblad voor Taal en Letteren 2, 144; C.B. van Haeringen (1950), 'Dialectologie en etymologie', in Gramarie 1962, 92; A.P. de Bont (1973), 'Fiets', in NTg 66, 19-54; E. Sanders (1997b), Fiets! De geschiedenis van een vulgair jongenswoord, Den Haag/Antwerpen

    Fries: fyts ◆ fytse

  15. Maxwell M. says

    I forgot to add this paragraph at the end:

    The Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands thus considers the origin of fiets to be unclear. It lists the likeliest one (Het meest wrsch….) and the less likely ones (De minder wrsch….)

  16. Thanks very much!

  17. I dug up “two-wheeled-bicycle” for this discussion we had. I didn’t know it was a term anyone actually used, but I checked, and it was.

  18. Kate Bunting says

    My 1974 ‘Petit Larousse’ contains a drawing of a man in early 19th century dress riding a ‘draisienne’, which looks like a pedal-less bicycle. For some reason the word has stuck in my memory.

  19. ktschwarz says

    You’d think their search function would be able to suggest hyphenated versions of what you’re looking for.

    It does, but (as best I can tell) matching with inserted hyphens/spaces is applied only when searching the headwords, not the full text. It does take you to “ready-made” if you search “readymade”, or “ill usage” if you search “illusage”, since those are headwords.

    There does not seem to be any way to allow loose matching when searching the full text. However, (as best I can tell) hyphens and spaces *always* match each other, even in the otherwise-exact matching required when searching outside the headwords. So if you search for either “swift-walker” or “swift walker”, it finds both of Jen’s quotes.


  1. […] Karl von Drais, a German inventor, is credited with creating the first bicycle. In 1817, he began using his “swiftwalker” mechanism. […]

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