The Germans, he learned, have a different name for the alcoholic apple-based beverage. They call it Viez, from the prefix “vice”, as in vice-president. Because cider, let’s face it, is a kind of wannabe wine.
Gunnar got to thinking. Viez sounds a lot like the Dutch fiets, or bicycle. People had never really understood where the word came from, such an oddity compared to its much more sensible counterparts in other languages. Could it be?
Yes, it could. The two-wheel novelty – or bi-cycle – used to be called Vice-Pferd in German, or vice-paard in Dutch (deputy-horse) when it first came into use in the second half of the 19th century. The English used to say “dandy horse”.
Gunnar and his colleague Luc de Grauwe, Flemish public broadcaster VRT reports, are now credited with solving one of the biggest etymological mysteries of the Dutch language.
An important mystery, I might add, since the Flemish are known to be ardent bikers. The Low Countries are relatively flat – the more north you go – the flatter it gets and ideal for leg-powered locomotion. (Until not very long ago, the Dutch prime minister would ride his fiets to work, his lunch box safely tucked underneath the carrier straps behind.) University towns like Leuven and Ghent are absolutely infested with jalopies that make you wonder how they still manage to stay upright.
Like so many other nouns in the Dutch language that imply a kind of action – yes, we are going grammar, here – fiets has been taken and moulded to also be a verb: fietsen, to bike.
Just add -en, and your noun is a verb. See also tennissen, internetten or, something your kid might say, Nintendoën. I kid you not. (Note the two dots over the “e” to indicate a separate syllable. The “oe” vowel combination is normally pronounced like the “ou” in “you”, but here it’s a normal plural ending with the “en” sound).
Ik ben op de fiets is often one of the first phrases students learn in Dutch class. I am on the bike, literally. I came by bike, actually. It’s one thing, of course, to know how to say it. Another is to know how to do it. And if I may be so blunt as to give you, the expat, some advice on how to blend in: ga eens een eindje fietsen, go do a little cycling.