Some Good Words, Some Bad

There are words I like, cacophony, antediluvian, semiotic, and words I don’t, enmity, colonel, duodenum. There are words I wish were words, like craptasm and smugputz, and words I wish weren’t, like monetization and senescence. Cycling contains its own vocabulary, the sorts of nonsense that doesn’t even make it into the NY Time crossword, and those are the words I want to address today.

In cycling, we have some compounds like freewheel and tubeset that are good and straightforward, and some less good, like chainstay and headset. Freewheel is an inspiring concoction, and tubeset feels accurate. I don’t know what a ‘stay’ is outside of this term, and nowhere in the word headset do you get the sense of bearings gliding through races that is the crux of the item in question. For chainstay, I’d prefer ‘lower strut.’ For headset, I could live with ‘bearingset.’ I’d throw ‘turnybobber’ into the suggestion box too, but just to make you say it at least once.

And then there are the Frenchisms. Derailleur sucks. You feel like an idiot pronouncing it properly, and you feel like a Philistine saying ‘derailer.’ The British call that part the ‘mech,’ and I like that. Rear mech. Front mech. The root is ‘mechanism,’ and that’s a good word in my book.

Mixte is another French word, and I like the way it sounds, even if the type of bike it describes, with small, twin headtubes tracing a path from headtube to rear axle, is kinda dumb. Since the term ‘hybrid’ to describe a bike means almost nothing, I’d replace that with mixte, just for kicks.

All the racing words like domestique and rouleur and puncheur are pretty good, but you sound kinda pretentious if you use them. The anglicized versions are dumb though. No one likes a puncher. And a domestic is someone who cleans your house. No one cleans my house, to be clear. I’m not fancy like that.

Noah Webster, (painted by James Herring for the National Portrait Gallery) is likely, this moment, spinning in his grave.

Gravel is a bad word. I prefer dirt.

Saddle is poor. I like seat.

Fat bike seems inappropriate. I’m not here to judge those bikes.

Bottom bracket seems not fit-for-purpose. That should be the ‘spindle-hole.’

Toe clips should be called cages, and clipless pedals should be called ‘clip-ins’ or ‘snap-tights’ or ‘click-clacks,’ but then we’re getting a little too cutesy again.

Even handlebar isn’t very good. What is that? A bar with handles? What are the options though, ‘griprod’ or ‘handsteerer?’ We’d be growing griprod mustaches? Nope. We’ll leave that one alone.

I don’t want to sound like a total duodenum, but the semiotics of cycling are a cacophony of mala-appropriation and stilted garbage. Many of the etymologies are painfully antediluvian. Words and meanings tend to be sticky though. What might sound odd to us the first time it exits our mouths, quickly becomes an unconscious signifier of meanings. We can’t not say it, because it’s the thing we’ve all agreed means the thing. Time and repetition remove the hard, strange edges, and then we’re just spewing sounds all day, like a dry chain or a loose spindlehole.

We can change this, you and I. We can wash our mouths clean of words like ‘gravel,’ and commit to something better. Just pick one and do it. I’m on board. In the comments below tell me which one you’re taking, either one I brought up or one of your own. We can’t make it worse. It’s already a craptasm.

Shimano North America, our primary sponsor, will need to be updated once we sort this thing out.

Join the conversation
  1. alanm9 says

    We wouldn’t be a proper tribe without inscrutable language, but I’m with you. In sailing a stay is a line or cable in tension to keep the mast in place. Not sure if that applies to bike frames. In places where they use chip and seal for road surfacing, the left-over gravel is exceedingly dangerous. So another reason to snort at that term.

  2. johnrom719 says

    Well, griprod sounds like an excellent word for “the excess gravel left over after chipsealing.” Great essay, Robot! Positively Apres-diluvian!

    “Griprod!,” he snorted.

  3. Barry Johnson says

    Then there’s the speed nomenclature. I rode a ten speed in the 70’s and a very different 10 speed in the aughts.

  4. khal spencer says
  5. Hautacam says

    “Ass Hatchet” is my personal favorite revisionist name for “saddle.” I wish I had come up with it, but I did not. It precisely describes my Flite and Aspide saddles (which I love, btw).

  6. Jeff vdD says

    I’m a fan, perhaps owing to my German heritage, of singlewords like headset and chainstay. (“Stays” are also found in sailing, likely among other uses … they are the cables that support the mast … headstay, sidestay, backstay.)

    Headset, hmm. Headset bearings are the least important of all of the bike bearings, I think, so let’s leave bearingset for something else. The bottom bracket, maybe?

    I’m in total agreement on front and rear mech. And I’m no fan of the word “gravel,” but don’t have a better option (“dirt” is too closely associated with MTB) and fear that it’s here to stay. I am always amused when I come upon a stretch of actual gravel while out on a gravel ride. It must have been the latter half of the aughts when a colleague of mine in Lincoln NE espoused gravel riding. He was early. And I thought the idea was nuts. Who would want to ride around on actual gravel?

    “Underbiking” is a favorite of mine.

    My best coinage has to be gringletrack … singletrack terrain ridden on a gravel (adventure?) bike.

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