Penny-farthings to Panniers: 7 Cycling Words


The velocipede was an early version of the bicycle. Constructed from iron and wood, this form of transportation made for a bumpy enough ride to earn itself the nickname "boneshaker." Velocipede entered English in the first half of the 19th century from the Latin velox + pedem, literally meaning "swift foot." The term first referred to a dandy- or hobby-horse, a two-wheeled vehicle propelled by feet, however, by the 1850s, this sense evolved to mean the pedal-powered early bicycle.


In the late 1800s, bicycle speed was directly related to the size of the front wheel. It follows that during this time, front wheels became increasingly larger and larger until the penny-farthing, also know as the ordinary, entered the market in the 1870s. The penny-farthing got its name from the British currency of the time. It was thought that the large and small wheels next to each other resembled a penny next to the much smaller farthing. Luckily, by the end of the century, bicycle technology improved. Front wheels shrank, and bicycles became easier and safer to use.

Tour de France

The Tour de France is a large international cycling race that takes place every year over three weeks in July. While the 2,235-mile race may begin outside of France, it always ends in Paris. Cyclists have been racing in the Tour de France since 1903, when Henri Desgrange created the event in an effort to increase circulation of his newspaper, L'Auto. Competitors vie for the yellow jersey, which is awarded to the cyclist who completes the course in the shortest time. A green jersey, a polka-dotted jersey, and a white jersey are also awarded for various cycling feats.


In terms of biking, a peloton is the main group of competitors moving forward together in a cycling race such as the Tour de France. When peloton first entered English around 1700, it referred to a small unit of soldiers. Peloton shares its root with the term platoon; they both come from the French meaning "small ball." The cycling sense of peloton emerged in the 1930s, perhaps in conjunction with rising popularity and international news coverage of the Tour de France.


Which came first: the mustache or the bicycle part? The portmanteau handlebar first entered English in the mid-1800s as a term to describe any sort of bar that was used as handles. The bicycle-specific sense of handlebars unsurprisingly took off in the 1870s as cycling gained more and more popularity. While handlebar mustaches may have existed before the 1920s, this distinctive style of facial hair did not its received playful name until then thanks to the increasing popularity of the bicycle.

Pedal pushers

Though today it is unlikely for a cyclist to be called a pedal pusher, back in the early 1900s, this was a popular turn of phrase. By the 1940s, the plural pedal pushers could refer to both cyclists and to the cropped pants worn by women or girls while biking. Over the years this style has become such a fixture in the fashion industry that people often will wear what they call pedal pushers even if they don't own a bike.


While cyclists know panniers as the useful bags that clip onto their bicycles, this is actually a relatively recent sense of this term. Pannier first entered English around 1300 from the Latin panarium meaning "bread basket." It originally referred to a basket used to carry items such as food, medical supplies, or other provisions, sometimes in a military context. Starting in the 1930s, people used the term pannier to refer to the bag fastened over a bicycle's rear wheels. This sense is still used (and creatively pronounced) by English-speaking bike enthusiasts.

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