German word of the day: Der Drahtesel
Talking the hind wheel off a donkey: Here's why ‘Drahtesel’ is the best German word for a bike.
As a pedestrian in Munich, it sometimes seems like you’re in more danger from the bicyclists than the drivers. The law of the road is in the hands of the lycra-wearers and bike trailer jockeys.
Perhaps this is why I take a certain guilty pleasure (one could even say - Schadenfreude) in today’s word of the day: Drahtesel. It translates literally as ‘wire donkey’ and is a joke name for a bicycle.
I cannot imagine a word that could annoy any serious cyclist more than this one.
It’s hard to find a reliable history of this composite noun. One shaky etymology conjectures that it was invented during the transition between donkeys - a common form of transportation up until the 19th century - and the popularisation of the bicycle.
However, I suspect it may be a more recent invention and is a variation on the more grandiose nickname for bicycles: “Stahlross” (steed of steel).
In fact, the German language has many more synonyms and nicknames for Das Fahrrad (bicycle) than the English language. It’s no surprise: Germany has a huge bike culture. In 2017, Deutschland.de reported the ownership of over 72 million bicycles - almost as many bikes as people in the country.
This became particularly apparent during the pandemic when a strange phenomena swept the country. Masses of people suddenly remembered those trusty old bikes rusting away in their sheds and gardens, and decided to take their old donkeys for a spin.
The Drahtesel is a lovable metaphor, evoking the image of a rattly but reliable second-hand bike. And as much as it might get the more humourless cyclists stomping in their bike-shoes and streamlined helmets, bikes and donkeys do have a surprising amount in common.
Both of them are easier to ride with a saddle. They’re dependable - unless they’re feeling temperamental. And they’re both a whole lot better for the environment than driving a car.
Ich brauche das Auto heute nicht, ich fahre mit meinem Drahtesel.
I don’t need the car today, I’ll take my bike.
Er verkauft seinen alten Drahtesel.
He’s selling his old bike.