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Is the E-Bike Superseding the M-Bike?
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© Taliesi via Pixabay
© Taliesi via Pixabay © Taliesi via Pixabay
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Is the E-Bike Superseding the M-Bike?

While cycling and snarling, linguist Fieke van der Gucht might spur a change in language.

We were cycling to work together, my love and I. We both pedalled against the wind, on our city bike, our bike baskets filled with a backpack (him), a handbag (me) and very civil-like, pre-prepared cheese sandwiches (both). I didn’t feel like it: the wind, the rain, work and certainly not the sandwiches.

While I growled, undoubtedly something very uplifting, a twenty-something-year-old passed me on an electric bike. Now, I can tolerate a jagger (young active pensioner) or vitalo (vital elderly person) getting an electric push, but anyone younger than myself has to have a good, solid reason. Before I could ask the e-biker about it, the twenty-something was already ten, twenty, thirty cyclists ahead.

‘See me suffer here on my mechanical bike,’ I grumbled, while I pedalled forward. ‘Shhhtt, don’t say that!’, snapped my boyfriend in response, as if trying to defuse the linguistic presumption I’d made. ‘On second thought, we’re still the ones riding a bike, she’s riding an e-bike. They’re the exceptions, not us.’

He was right, I thought. Did I trigger a change in language with my reaction? Would I have invented a retronym with the mechanical bike – I had already come up with m-bike as a fitting counterpart to the e-bike.

Up until the existence of the paperback, a hardcover was still called a normal book

Unlike the m-bike, I didn’t create the word retronym myself: it had already been coined by the American journalist Frank Mankiewicz in 1980, back when I wasn’t even speaking full sentences. Mankiewicz had noticed that people suddenly started using hardcover (book) to refer to a book with a hard cover, ever since the introduction of books with a soft cover. Up until the existence of the paperback, a hardcover was still called a normal book – so hardcover is a somewhat modern vintage word.

The phenomenon of the retronyms turns out to be very useful, not only in English, but also in Dutch. Until the invention of diesel trains and electric trains, steam trains were still called trains, for example. And more recently, the word cisgender (and even cis men and cis women) emerged, English words from Dutch origin, which refer to men and women whose sexual identity corresponds to their biological gender. Before transgenders broke into the public domain, people who do not identify with their natural gender, the word cisgender didn’t exist. (By the way: pre-fix cis- comes from Latin and means ‘on this side’, trans- means ‘on the other side’).

Furthermore, until the mid-twentieth, the word childbirth referred to a home birth: after all, four out of five women gave birth at home. Back then, giving birth in a hospital was a predominantly urban phenomenon, only reserved for a minority, which was referred to as hospital birth. The first part of the word emphasizes the exceptional status of this type of childbirth.

In the second half of the twentieth century this relationship began to turn around. In 2012, no less than 99 percent of Belgian women chose to give birth in hospital. This is why childbirth in a private environment is now explicitly referred to as home birth. Giving birth at home takes on a new form in words home birth, which replaces the old form of birth.

Will it go the same way with bike as with book and birth, I thought while pedalling forward. Will the e-bike gradually replace the bike with physical pedalling power not only literally, but also figuratively? When people think of the word bike, they think of an electric bike that is faster than a mechanical bike, so is the existing word not really describing the push-driven bicycle anymore?

Already in 2018, nearly half of the bikes that were sold, 503.119 to be precise, had an electric motor. I had just read that in the newspaper. If that half of e-bikes would now rise to a sizeable three-quarters, and the mechanical bike would at the same time lose sales, would that mean the rise of the retronym m-bike?

Before I could ask my boyfriend, I had to brake abruptly, for a speed pedelec – an electric bicycle that can reach 45 km/h, even faster than the e-bike that goes up to 25 km/h. I kept my comments to myself for the time being. I am still too attached to the word bike.

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