linguistics and lexicography Love English

Tour de Yorks

© DIGITAL VISIONA couple of weeks ago I finally fulfilled a longstanding wish to visit Haworth parsonage, family home of the Bronte sisters. There is a striking, even surreal contrast between the plain, dark house by the churchyard where those brilliantly gifted women spent much of their short lives and the chocolate-box prettiness of the steep main street of the village, with its gift shops, cafes and bunting. On the day of my visit, Sunday cyclists toiled up and down the twisty moorland roads that lead to Haworth while the festive atmosphere in the village itself was enhanced by troupes of brightly dressed, bell-bedecked morris dancers. Yellow bikes and yellow flags were everywhere, because last weekend Haworth High Street was briefly the scene of a different spectacle as many of the world’s best cyclists swept up the cobbled hill en masse on their way from York to Sheffield during the second stage of this year’s Tour de France.

Yorkshire has produced some great cyclists, including the brilliant Beryl Burton, the subject of a recent play; but road cycling has only become a mass spectator sport in this country in the past few years. An estimated 2.5 million people turned out to watch the first two sections of the Grand Départ, as the opening stage of the race is called. And that’s the thing about cycling: a lot of the terminology is French, reflecting that nation’s long dominance of the sport. For those who don’t know their maillot jaune from their lanterne rouge, or think a domestique is someone who cleans other people’s houses, it can be very confusing. (Though domestique does indeed mean ‘servant’ – the domestiques are the guys who sacrifice their own chances of winning to improve the chances of the best rider, so in that sense they are the servants of their team.)

Fortunately, however, some English terms have crept in as well. So the maillot jaune, awarded to the rider with the fastest overall time at the end of each stage as well as at the end of the entire race,  can also be called the yellow jersey (never the yellow jumper or sweater, although in everyday parlance the terms are interchangeable). Other colours of jersey are awarded for different things – white for the best young rider, green  for the fastest sprinter – but the best has to be the snazzy red polka-dot one awarded to the King of the Mountains, who is nothing to do with Norwegian folk tales but simply the best at going up those killer hills. Staying with clothes, the peculiar looking shorts-and-braces garments worn by cyclists are known as bib shorts.

Peloton, the term for the main group of riders, has become an accepted English word. Meanwhile the group of riders who work to keep their sprinter at the front towards the end of the race are called the sprint train. Trains were familiar to the Brontes, but the modern bicycle was not invented until the 1860s, and cycling only started to become a mass pursuit around the end of the nineteenth century. What on earth would Charlotte, Emily and Anne have made of the Lycra-clad supermen powering through their village on two wheels?

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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