- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) a bicycle; a beehive
This might be one of the strangest facts we’ve had for a while: a bike was originally a beehive. No, really.
So here’s the facts. As another word for a bees’ or wasps’ nest, bike emerged in the northern dialects of Middle English, and gets its first written shoutout in the text to the Cursor Mundi, a mammoth verse history of the world written sometime around 1300.
As we mentioned on Twitter, it’s thought that this bike comes from beowic, which although unattested in written Old English, would nevertheless have meant something along the lines of “bee-dwelling.” (Bonus fact: that Anglo-Saxon wic is the same “–wick” that turns up in place names like Alnwick, Berwick, Warwick and Keswick.)
There is a problem with that theory, however. As the Oxford English Dictionary explains, such are the vagaries of English phonology and etymology, an Old English word like beowic would have been expected to morph into a Middle English word like beek, or beke. That’s not to say that that beowic becoming bike couldn’t have happened, but it does cast doubt on the idea. In the absence of any other theories, however, this is the best explanation we’ve got.
Regardless of its origins, the bees’ bike of the Middle English period soon developed a handful of figurative senses, so that by the end of the 1500s bike was being used to refer to anywhere as busy or as thronged as a beehive; anywhere containing a rich store hidden from view; or anywhere offering a secret hiding place or retreat.
Alas, the term never really entered the mainstream in English, and remains isolated in a handful of local British dialects today. Bike as in “bicycle,” however, is just about as mainstream a word as you can find.
It first appeared in the language in 1880, as a colloquial (and oddly irregular, when you think about it) shortened form of bicycle. The word bicycle itself dates from 1868; oddly, tricycle is an earlier term, dating back to 1828, as it originally referred to a style of three-wheeled coach, drawn by a pair of horses.