Iron horses

I came across the term gearrán iarainn the other day while looking for something else in my Irish dictionary. The literal meaning is ‘iron horse’ and the actual meaning is bicycle. It sounds similar to one of the early words for car – horseless carriage – and just appealed to me. I’m fairly sure it isn’t used very often though – the more common Irish word for bicycle is rothar, which comes from the root roth, wheel. A cyclist is rothaí, to cycle is rothaigh, and cycling is rothaíocht.

Do you know of any other languages which have a similarly interesting name for the bicycle?

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This entry was posted in Irish, Language, Words and phrases.

28 Responses to Iron horses

  1. Paper Hand says:

    The Japanese term is Jitensha (自転車), which translates roughly as “self-moving car”, or maybe “self-propelled car”. The “ten” morpheme means literally “turn around” or “revolve”.

    I suspect that Chinese probably uses the same characters, but I don’t know for a fact. Many technologies from before the late 20th century tend to share the same hanzi in Chinese and Japanese.

  2. LAttilaD says:

    Hungarian:
    – mostly used name is bicikli (the same as in English);
    – official name is kerékpár (wheel pair);
    – a rarely used nickname is drótszamár (wire donkey).

  3. Strika says:

    I just happened to read recently an article about the relationship between the signified and the cultural perception, and they give the following examples for the word “bicycle” in some African languages:

    Sango (spoken in Central African Republic): gbâzâbängâ (rubber wheels)
    Bambara (spoken in Mali): nàgàso (iron horse)
    Lilikô (Bantu language spoken in zone D): magu-mâkwangaya (four feet).

  4. prase says:

    gearrán iarinn: shouldn’t it be iarrain (caol le caol …)?

    (sorry for nitpicking, I’m sure it’s annoying, but I just can’t resist :)

  5. prase says:

    Damn it, trying to correct a typo I’ve produced another typo. Iarainn, not iarrain.

  6. prase says:

    And by the way, in Czech the official term is jízdní kolo (travelling wheel), but normally we say only kolo (wheel). Bicykl is used sometimes, but sounds a bit old-fashioned. Cyclist is cyklista, cycling is cyklistika and the verb is jezdit na kole (well, that’s not one verb, but we have nothing better).

    As for iron horses, in Czech železný oř is used solely for purposes of railroad description in Wild West stories.

    Anyway, sorry for triple post, I shall think faster and write slower next time.

  7. GeoffB says:

    In Breton, it’s marc’h-houarn – also horse of iron.This is the only term for bicycle I’ve run across so far and the only translation given in any of my dictionaries.

  8. michael farris says:

    German also had/has “wire donkey” (Drahtesel)

    Muskogee/Creek/Seminole has esletketa (“running with it” where es- is an instrumental prefix, letk- is the root meaning ‘to run’ and -eta is an infinitive/gerund)

    Polish uses rower but I have no idea about the etymology.

  9. pittmirg says:

    Polish “rower” is derived from the name of the company Rover which used to produce bicycles. Belarusian has a similar word: ровар.
    OTOH the term “koło” (=wheel; like in Czech) must have once been in use as well, because we have “kolarstwo” ‘cycling’ and “kolarz” ‘cyclist’ (used in sport contexts). “Koło” is sometimes still used in dialects. Today “rowerzysta” means ‘cyclist’ in other contexts, apart from the sport.

  10. Nwdls says:

    “Ceffyl haearn” is only used as a joking old-fashioned term in Welsh too. Though I am tempted to try to resurrect it into common usage, even though mine’s actually a “Ceffyl ffeibr carbon” :)

  11. mumei says:

    Another Japanese word for bicycle commonly used is tyari or tyarinko (チャリンコ). I have two stories for the origin of this word.
    The first being that it comes from a child pickpocket, which was the most common meaning of tyarinko from the edo to early shouwa period.
    The second is more likely, that it comes from korean where the word 自転車 zitensya (self turning wheel/bicycle) is pronounced chajongo.

    A bicycle with a basket in front is called a mamatyari, mother’s bicycle. A word which probably would’ve been considered rude a century ago, considering that tyari was used to describe mischievous things like a pickpocket.

  12. Jill says:

    I’ve seen two terms for “bicycle” in Mandarin Chinese. I unfortunately cannot remember one of them, but it glosses to something like “tread pedal vehicle”. The one I do remember is 自行车, zi4xing2che1, which glosses as “self go vehicle”.

  13. Simon says:

    prase – you’re right, it should be iarainn. I’ve corrected it now.

    Jill – the other Chinese words for bicycle are 腳踏車 (jiăotàchē) – ‘tread pedal vehicle’ and (dānchē) – ‘single vehicle’.

  14. peter j. franke says:

    The dutch word for cycle is “fiets”. I have no idea where it comes from or is based on… “Fietsen” is “to cycle” and a cycle track is called “een fietspad”. Another, more pathetic, term is: “stalen ros”, that is: “horse of steel”.
    A small side track: In Groninger dialect a motorcycle is “een plof” (sound imitation: “plof,plof,plof.”) and in Danish it’s called “knallert” ( a “knall” is a banging sound like fire crackers.)

  15. peter j. franke says:

    Oo, I forgot to mention the dutch word(s) for motorcycle: “bromfiets”or “brommer”. Based on: brrrrommmmm-sound.
    Another word for cycle in Dutch is: “tweewieler” (two-wheeler).

  16. Caenwyr says:

    By the way, the Dutch expression “stalen ros” is only used in an ironic kind of way. Another, rather official term is “rijwiel” (driving wheel), to my opinion a rather silly name, since lots of vehicles are equipped with driving wheels without being called that way. But ah well, that’s how it goes with official terms ;-).

  17. Afifay says:

    Where does the root ‘roth’ (wheel) come from ? In north africa, we have ‘rroda’ for a wheel !

  18. @Afifay: From Latin _rota_ “wheel” > Portuguese _roda_, Spanish _rueda_, Italian _ruota_ (probable source for North Africa), French _roue_, …

  19. TJ says:

    If I’m not mistaken… the iron horse term is used by some native indian tribes in the Americas to note a train…this is what I heard once!

  20. peter j. franke says:

    In Dutch a cycler is called: ” een wielrijder” (a wheel rider) or: “fietser”.
    You’ll not only find “tweewielers” but also “driewielers” (three wheelers) in Holland. The last category is mainly used by small children. Cycling is popular in the Lowlands….

  21. peter j. franke says:

    The name “rijwiel” is from the period of cycles with one big wheel (and a rather small one at the rear). So in this case “rijden” is more: “to ride” (like on a horse) then “to drive”.

  22. Simon says:

    peter – what about cycles with one wheel (unicycles)?

  23. jdotjdot89 says:

    In Hebrew, the word is אופניים, which literally means “two wheels.” The word for unicycle is חד-אופן. Unsurprisingly, the word for tricycle is תלת-אופן, or “three wheels.” Interestingly, though, the words for both unicycle and tricycle follow a pattern relatively uncommon in Hebrew: rather than use the Hebrew words for “one” and “three,” they use the Aramaic ones–which while similar, are not the same. Arabic speakers will notice that תלת (three, “t’lat”) is very similar to the Arabic word for three, and this comes from the relationship with Aramaic.

    Why those words use the Aramaic numbers completely eludes me. Anyone know?

  24. peter j. franke says:

    Yes Simon, a unicycle is called in Dutch “een éénwieler”. “Een” is: “a”/”an” as well as “one”. But the pronunciation is different: a/an (een) is with “schwa” while one is pronounced as: [e:n]. To stress this an accent is used: één.
    And 1,2,3…4: there are indeed “vierwielers” in Dutch (four wheelers). A hardly used word for cars.

  25. Benjamin says:

    In the Nahuatl language of Mexico, a similar word is used for motor vehicles in general: teposkauayo, which may be translated “metal horse.” Of course the kauayo part comes from Spanish.

  26. Ulashima says:

    In Turkish it’s Bisiklet, a French loanword (original is Bicyclette)

    Unicycle and Tricycle have no special terms. They’re called “Tek tekerlekli bisiklet” (Bicycle with a single wheel), and “Üç tekerlekli bisiklet” (Bicycle with three wheels) respectively. If there’s a need to differ a bicycle from a tricycle (for example when a kid’s too grown up for a tricycle and will switch to bicycle, and to explain this situation) it’s sometimes called “İki tekerlekli bisiklet” (Bicycle with two wheels)

    In Japanese, bicycle is 自転車 (jitensha, self revolving wheel). As automobiles are called 自動車 (jidousha, self moving wheel) it may have a reason that this word was to differ the two types of vehicles. And in Japanese, there’s also another word for bicycle in Japanese. It’s チャリ (Chari). Don’t know where it comes from but I remember this word being a popular term among college students when I was there in 1999.

  27. Sulayman says:

    Well, a train is referred to as “iron rooster” in Chinese…

  28. Taffy says:

    In Taiwanese it’s also frequently heard as “iron horse” (thih-bé; 鐵馬). Not sure where this comes from or whether it’s perhaps a native concoction.