Mind your language

Can the beer-bike take on the Boris-bike?

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

2 December 2017

9:00 AM

In Amsterdam the courts have given leave to ban the bierfiets. Fiets is the Dutch for ‘bike’. (The plural is fietsen.) A bierfiets is a float on which a dozen people sit on high seats facing each other across a narrow bar running fore and aft, enjoying their beer and pedalling away to power the vehicle. Someone sits at the front to steer and brake.

Some suggest that bierfiets has entered the English language as the name of this newish thing. I’m not sure it really has, any more than many another name in a foreign language for foreign things (churros or currywürste). If the bierfiets itself survives it is as likey to be called a beer-bike in English.


A word with a bit of staying-power in English is Boris-bike, even though Boris Johnson is no longer Mayor of London and the bicycles there are now sponsored by Santander in place of Barclays. I have never heard anyone call one a Santander-bike, and in any case few people pronounce Santander properly. (The stress is on the last syllable.) It derives not from St Andrew, but, apparently, from St Emeterius.This exemplifies a word for a new thing lasting perhaps as long as the thing. That may be true of the fidget spinner too, although that annoying toy is likely soon to follow clackers and space-hoppers into the nostalgic half-lit cupboard of past crazes.

What then of the Word of the Year chosen by Collins Dictionary: fake news? Is it, young people may ask, ‘even a thing’? Fake news is a slippery word, lobbed at enemies in ideological battle. So was last year’s, Brexit. Yet Brexit, even though no one could agree on what it should be, is a useful portmanteau term for Britain’s exit, quite independently of the degree to which such a thing is likely to be achieved.

Collins likes to announce a Word of the Year because it wants to sell dictionaries. A runner-up this year named a trend that will surely need a name for some time to come: the gig economy. I hope fake news will last as long as real snow and real tans (and, by their nature, real smiles) and not their fake counterparts.

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