Belgian philologists claim German origins for Dutch word ‘fiets’ (bicycle)

Instead of riding bicycles, bicyclettes, vélos, or Fahrräder, the Dutch ride fietsen. Despite a long list of publications on the subject, the etymology of the word is still something of a riddle. Some years ago, an elaborate review of previous explanations concluded that its origins probably can be found in the regional, southern-Dutch verb vietse, meaning ‘to move quickly’ (see Sanders, 1996).

Two Belgian philologists of the University of Gent, Gunnar de Boel, a specialist in Greek literature, and his colleague Luc de Grauwe, professor of German, now claim to have discovered the real origins of the word. In the peer-reviewed Tijdschrift voor Nederlandse Taal- en Letterkunde, they argue that ‘fiets’ must have come from the short version of a hypothetical German word ‘Vize-Pferd’ (i.e. substitute horse), used jokingly and spreading already in the 1870s to the Netherlands through neighbouring and related dialects.

The argument presented by De Boel and De Grauwe is not bereft of logic, but it suffers from two serious flaws. First of all, the authors fail to discuss the most probable explanation sofar (the one that links the word to a Dutch dialect verb vietse) and simply discard it in a one-sentence footnote.  Secondly, and more fundamentally, historical evidence for the existence of a German word ‘Vize-Pferd’ (or a Dutch equivalent) – let alone for its widespread use – has yet to be found. To put it differently, the Belgian article is the first printed evidence in 140 years that suggests that such a word must have existed.  Although one can’t deny the originality of their argument, therefore, the two Belgian researchers will have a difficult time claiming that they have solved the riddle. Not surprisingly, the first expert criticisms of their thesis, by the Dutch philologist Jan Stroop and Ewoud Sanders, have already appeared on the internet and in NRC Handelsblad (27-2-2012) .