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What’s in a Word?

Apr 2, 2019

As a writer, and professional user of words and language, I have been rather bemused by the notion floated this week that we should all stop using the term “cyclist” to refer to those of us who get about on bicycles, on the grounds that the term “cyclist” has such negative connotations nowadays with motorists and politicians.

            Instead, it is suggested, we come up with newterms, several of them, in fact, one each to denote the various ways in which we rideour bicycles: commuting, touring, racing etc. Apparently the Dutch have different words to describe those who race bicycles – as in the Tour de France – and the mere mortals who simply ride them and the flowery logic here seems to be that this flexibility in the Dutch language somehow creates flexibility in thinking as well. We English speakers, the thinking goes, should do likewise.

            That something needs to be done is highlighted by a survey of Australian motorists that found that an alarming percentage of drivers – 31 per cent! Nearly a third – perceive cyclists as not being fully human, and are desensitized to their humanity to the extent with about one-in-ten motorists admitting to deliberately swerving at cyclists, cutting them off, or deliberately passing as close as they can without making contact (and potentially getting themselves in trouble, or at least having to fill out a lot of fussy paperwork)

            Now, I agree that it would be a great thing if everybody could get along better on the roads – cyclists, motorists, whoever – but for the life of me I can’t see how an act of preciousness on the part of cyclists, by coming up with coy new terms for self-identity is going to do anything but perpetuate – and indeed thrust further into the limelight – the old libel that cyclists are rather too precious to begin with. Words matter, to be sure. As a writer I know that better than most. But  inventing clever new synonyms for “cyclist” in the hope that such a thing will catch on and broaden minds and open hearts seems absurdly naive.