Rijwiel, fiets or machine: Dutch words for bicycle

3 July 2015

A new book on the early history of Dutch bicycles briefly discusses the words that were used to refer to them:

The government spoke of a rijwiel [riding wheel], manufacturers and salespersons of «machines» and «safeties» and among users, the typical Dutch word fiets (or sometimes viets) gained popularity at some point.

I especially like the term machine, which has a nice futuristic ring to it (I wanted to use this image to illustrate my point, but it’s copyrighted until 2027). The term machine also links to the emancipatory role of the bicycle, which was described as the «freedom machine» by an American feminist.

So when did the Dutch call bicycles machines? In his book Fiets!, Ewoud Sanders indicates the word machine had been popular at least since 1880 (he adds that people sometimes spoke of toer- and renmachines, which makes the term machine sound even cooler). He quotes a linguist who wrote in 1911:

Anyone above age 35, has said or heard being said: vélocipède, vélo, safety, bicycle, rijwiel, kar, machine, fiets, and knows more or less the context in which these words are or were used. But who could even roughly date them, without much reading up and asking around?

To find out more, I turned to the Delpher historical archive of Dutch newspapers. I first looked for occurences of velocipede, rijwiel and fiets in newspaper articles (this method obviously has limitations which I discuss in the Method section below).

The term velocipede was used in the second half of the 19th century. Both fiets and rijwiel became more popular after the 1880s. The term rijwiel fell into disuse after the war, whereas use of the term fiets kept growing.

I also looked into occurences of these terms in ads, which resulted in a slightly different pattern.

The term rijwiel was used more often and stayed in use longer in ads than in articles. This may have something to do with the fact that many bicycle manufacturers had the term rijwiel in their brand name. Second, there’s an intriguing spike in the use of the terms rijwiel and especially fiets in the 1940s. Something to do with the war?

A closer look reveals that the spike occured during the first years of the German occupation. A possible explanation can be found in Pete Jordan’s book on Dutch cycling history. He explains that the German occupiers immediately plundered petrol supplies. The result: «Within days after the capitulation, motorists switched to the bicycle in such high numbers that bicycle shops saw their sales more than double, and orders for bicycle manufacturers rose to ‘fantastic heights’».

But let’s return to the term machine. Obviously, there’s no point in simply counting occurances of this term in articles and ads, for in most cases it will have nothing to do with bicycles. To solve this problem, I looked at ads and articles containing the term machine in combination with either rijwiel or fiets. Not a perfect solution, but let’s see what happens.

The results suggest that use of the term machine to refer to a bicycle peaked in the 1890s in articles and in the 1900s for ads (I suspect the slight rise in the 1960s is due to noise). An early example is an ad from 1885:

Offered for sale, at a moderate price, one well-maintained English Vélocipède (Royal Bicycle), used for only 5 months, front wheel 1.24 Meter. Owner has acquired a lower Machine.

Today, the term machine is often associated with devices that run on fuel or electricity (in fact, the Italian woord macchina simply means car). But there’s no reason why this should remain so. The Dutch Wikipedia defines a machine as «a device consisting of a frame, a drive mechanism and other specific parts. It’s a mechanism that can convert a form of movement or energy into another form of movement or energy».

That sounds pretty much like a description of a bicycle. Cyclists, let’s reclaim the term machine. Not instead of fiets, of course, but as an addition.


I used the Delpher website to search the database of Dutch newspapers which is claimed to contain about 10% of publications between 1618 and 1995. Selection criteria for the database may affect the results. In addition, scanned newspapers have been OCR’ed and this is not entirely error-free. I tried to identify publications which use the term machine to refer to bicycles by searching for co-occurances of machine and either fiets or rijwiel. Obviously this isn’t error-free either; for example, a shop may advertise both bicycles and sewing machines. Initially there was a strange peak in combinations of rijwiel and machine in the 1960s which turned out to be due to unrelated mentions of the terms in a section called Beurs van Amsterdam so I filtered those out.

The books referred to are:
Kaspar Hanenbergh en Michiel Röben (2015), Ons stalen ros: Nederland wordt een land van fietsers. 1820 tot 1920. Uitgeverij Ons stalen ros.
Pete Jordan (2013), De fietsrepubiek. Podium.
Ewoud Sanders (1997), Fiets! De geschiedenis van een vulgair jongenswoord. Sdu / Standaard Uitgeverij.

Update - Reinier Asscheman asked about the term tweewieler (two-wheeler). This showed a small peak in the 1880s (ads) and 1890s (articles) and started to rise again in the second half of the 20th century. At its highest level, there was still only one mention for every seven mentions of fiets in ads and one in thirty for articles.

3 July 2015 | Categories: cycling, data | Nederlands