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Language Matters: Despising ‘avid cyclist’ and a news story anatomy

Posted by on October 7th, 2013 at 2:05 pm

“The term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.”
— Chris Bruntlett, via Hush Magazine

In our ongoing effort to raise awareness about how the words we use establish (sometimes harmful) cultural norms and have a major impact on our discussions around traffic safety and bicycling, we’re bringing back our Language Matters column.

While many people still don’t get why we take this issue so seriously, we are heartened by two recent examples we’ve come across that help make the case that this is something worthy of consideration and action.

The first is an excellent essay by Vancouver (Canada) resident Chris Bruntlett titled, I Am Not a Cyclist which was published on Hush Magazine’s website last week. Chris emailed us to share the essay and said he was inspired to write it after an appearance on a local talk radio show where the host referred to him as an “avid cyclist” throughout the interview. Chris said he had recently watched Áron Halász’s Cyclists Do Not Exist Tedx talk and he read our story from last month about a researcher’s work on language use and bike advocacy.

Here’s an excerpt from Chris’s essay:

I am no more an avid cyclist than I am an avid walker or avid eater. I am someone who often uses a bicycle, simply because it is the most civilized, efficient, enjoyable, and economical way to get around my city… As well as possessing a bike, I also own a share in the Modo car co-op, a Compass Card, and many pairs of shoes. The bicycle is merely a means to an end. It is a tool which does not convert me into a cyclist, any more than vacuuming my apartment turns me into a janitor, or brushing my teeth transforms me into a dental hygienist.

In a local context, the term ‘cyclist’ continues to provide us with a damaging mental barrier and convenient scapegoat. It serves only to alienate and denigrate an entire segment of society, and cast them aside as ‘others’.

Chris also shares his belief that as his city’s infrastructure and culture slowly (but surely) change toward being more sensitive to bicycling it will no longer be a political or environmental statement. “Then, and only then,” he writes, “will we stop identifying folks as ‘cyclists’, and treat them as individuals, with a diverse range of politics, incomes, ethnicities, careers, and interests.”

And he ends with a simple request:

So please, stop calling me a cyclist. I’m a husband, a father, a designer, a writer, a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, a humanist, an urbanist, a vegetarian, and a football supporter. But most importantly, I’m the citizen of a multi-modal city. The bicycle is but a minor detail.

Read the full essay at HushMagazine.com.

Our second item is the Anatomy of a news story posted in the current newsletter of the Cambridge (UK) Cycling Campaign (and brought to our attention by Steven Vance). The author, Raymond Brown, takes a recent news article about a traffic collision and examines each section based on the article’s choice of words and language style. He takes on issues people often discuss here on BikePortland such as: Why the reporter mentions helmet use; implications of blame in relation to the word “collision”; and so on.

From Cambridge Cycling Campaign. Read it here.

Here’s Brown’s criticism with the news article’s use of a common phrase:

‘He was struck’: the use of the passive here suggests it was serendipity, just ‘one of those things’, like ‘he was struck by lightning’, not the result of one or other party’s action. I would have said: ‘The collision took place on Milton Road just before the junction with the guided busway.’

What struck me about Brown’s post was that the news article he featured is almost identical to hundreds of similar articles posted to the web nearly every day. What I’ve found (at least here in the States), is that those short statements about collisions are often posted by news organizations verbatim from police statements. While that in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing to do, it’s very rare that the news outlet will present the information as being copy/pasted from the police (I think that’s an important distinction).

Read more at CamCycle.org.uk.

I think both of these posts offer important takeaways about language use and how it impacts our perceptions.

— More from our Language Matters series here.

NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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John Lascurettes
Guest

As a related language thing, I recently rewatched Simon Pegg’s “Hot Fuzz” and there were a number of jokes in there about using the official language guidelines. One of those items was saying “collision” and not “accident”. I was slightly sad that it was used as a joke about pedants, but couldn’t help but think, “amen.”

Slammy
Guest
Slammy

Chris Bruntlett’s use of the term “Indulging” is boorish and snobby. I swear, what an odd thing to rebel against: Bike shorts. So what, he shops at the mall? Big deal, Camper shoes are still over a hundred bucks. He is bragging here, but I’m not sure why.

No wonder he’s not a cyclist. A cyclist proudly follows rule #18.

Jeff
Guest

I really don’t get why this is such an issue. The author is happy to call himself a vegetarian, based on his decision not to consume meat. He’s happy to call himself a husband, a photographer, and a musician, based on other decisions he’s made. Why is the decision to ride a bike, rather than drive a car, so different?

I don’t see any stigma in the word “cyclist.” I’m happy to call myself that, just as I call myself a vegetarian. It doesn’t mean I can’t be any other thing I want to be. If I get a car from Getaround, I’m a driver, as long as I’m behind the wheel, at least. Sure, it’s embarrassing (to me) to be a driver, even for a few minutes, but it’s accurate.

I am very aware of the importance of language, but I don’t see how a noun modified by a predicate phrase (“person riding a bike”) is any better than a plain old noun (“cyclist”). The cited article sure didn’t make it any clearer to me (he just sounds like someone who doesn’t like people who are more enthusiastic about bikes). I’m open to understanding why it matters, though!

Jim
Guest
Jim

A person driving a car is a “driver”.
A person riding a bike is a “cyclist”
A person that doesn’t want to be called a “cyclist” when they are riding a bike spends too much time thinking about their image of themselves.

Oregon Mamacita
Guest
Oregon Mamacita

Jeff- your post I understand….

Author Chris seems enthusiastic about bikes (it’s the most “civilized” transport in his city). If I understand his point, he seems to think its is so “natural” to be a bike commuter that you shouldn’t be labelled a cyclist.

I am not sure why he gets to micro-manage how everyone describes his
two-wheeled vehicle use.

For me, the New Urbanism is about micro-managing how others live, so being unreasonably picky on how your socially virtuous and civilized cycling is described is to be expected.

If we are serious about language, how about not labelling all grass-roots opposition to rapid and dramatic neighborhood changes as being a NIMBY and a climate change denier.

Me, I ride my bike all over because it is fun.

Spiffy
Guest

maybe I’ll start calling myself a transmotorcyclistian just to cover all my modes…

JV
Guest
JV

I am also perplexed by this perceived outcry against the term “cyclist”. It is a temporary term to describe the vehicle a person is travelling with/on at a moment. The rest of the post about passive sentence construction to describe collisions is a valid journalistic criticism.

The only thing that Chris Bruntlett’s essay convinced me of was that he is not avid, but he is still a cyclist. As is someone delivering pizzas by bike, someone biking to the grocery store, commuting to work by bike, etc… Basically, if they were doing that activity by using a car, they would be called a “driver”. And yes, there are both avid and casual drivers as well. The whole industry of motorsports exists to serve avid drivers at various levels of skill the way that bicycle racing serves avid cyclists.

Let’s focus on other aspects of the language of transportation, but cyclist, driver, skater, unicyclist, pedestrian, and pogo-sticker are all appropriate and descriptive terms to describe a person using a particular mode of transport at a given time.

Scott
Guest
Scott

I hate being called a cyclist.

Choice of transportation is not grounds for labeling.

If you are in the Tour de France, you are a cyclist. If you are on your way to work, you are on your way to work. Regardless.

Would you ever call someone a “bussist”, or a “trainist”? Even motorist seems weird to say to someone who has done nothing more arrive at their chosen destination and at the brass tacks, this blog is about transportation. So when everyone is trying to get places, there is no reason to pin tags based on mode to each individual. The plan is to make city centers and the routes to them safe and free flowing for all modes so forming factions is only going to impede this.

BURR
Guest
BURR

I don’t necessarily being labeled a cyclist, but the ‘avid’ part is just obnoxious…

Slammy
Guest
Slammy

I have Avid brakes… does that make me an Avid cyclist?

David Feldman
Guest
David Feldman

This discussion is proof that wi-fi is cooking everyone’s brain these days.

IanC
Guest
IanC

I agree with the author about being reduced from the varied, complete title of “citizen”, to something limited to a particular interest or activity.

The most dehumanizing is, of course, “consumer”, which I find much more offensive. That term is usually used by corporate interests to justify damaging business practices to keep prices low, all in the name of protecting the “consumer” (banning beef concentrated area feed lots would hurt consumers because the price of a Big Mac by 8 cents).

Granpa
Guest
Granpa

It is not the label that makes us “others”. I really wish that drivers would see persons when they share the road with cyclists. If it were a vulnerable son or father they were driving next to then they might show more courtesy.

In small measures I see that change happening.

dwainedibbly
Guest
dwainedibbly

I am an avid breather and, according to Mrs Dibbly, an avid eater, but not always.

Mossby Pomegranate
Guest
Mossby Pomegranate

Are fat people avid eaters? I don’t know. Sometimes I walk, sometimes I drive, and sometimes I ride a bike. I’m not an avid participant in any one of those modes of transit. I use any of them when appropriate.

AndyC of Linnton
Guest
AndyC of Linnton

Interesting topic. We use words to describe activity, yet they also can become loaded. I have no problem being called a cyclist when I’m cycling, it just gets problematic when blame is inherent in that description, and relegates me to the realm of an “other”, which I feel is how most media portrays whatever isn’t the norm. Oh yeah, reminds me of this MR. Show sketch:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jp83JZg0hU4

GlowBoy
Guest
GlowBoy

I do think language matters — one of my pet peeves is the use of the word “accident,” for example — but I think this is getting beyond silly.

When I’m driving I’m a motorist. When I’m walking I’m a pedestrian. When I’m running I’m a runner. When I’m biking I’m a cyclist. SFW?

Would it be really so helpful if the news story were changed to read “human being operating vehicle injured in collision with vehicle operated by another human being?” Yes, this helps avoid labeling, but it also strips out context and meaning. The label “cyclist” isn’t being used here to describe who someone is as a person, but to describe their role in a particular situation.

I do agree that there is a very serious problem with victim blaming, both in the specific news story and in society as a whole. But I disagree that it is about labeling people who ride bikes as “cyclists.”

jerryw
Guest
jerryw

A good writer has something good or valuable to say, lousy writers can only come up with drivel like this. This five minutes I wished I hadn’t wasted.

q`Tzal
Guest
q`Tzal

On the passivity of “he was struck” and similar blameless verbiage:
How should this be phrased when the author has no solid evidence as to the guilty party in the collision?
As I see it and more active or aggressive wording will invariably place blame, intentionally or not, on a party as interpreted by the reader in an almost random manner. This assumes that the author is not also applying their own bias…

Al from PA
Guest
Al from PA

In French “cycliste” refers specifically to an officially recognized road bike racer. It’s really kind of a term of respect. “Cyclo” is a bike tourist or someone who participates in organized hill climbs or “gran fondo” type events (“cyclotouriste” or “cyclosportif”). I don’t know of any word that refers specifically to someone who rides a bike just to get around. Nor is there any equivalent to “avid cyclist.” There is of course also a distinction between “bicyclette”–which implies a bike used in more purposeful riding, and “vélo,” which is more just a bike you use to get around–although “vélo” can drift over and be used informally to indicate any bike (like the slangy “bécane”).

BIKELEPTIC
Guest

I believe he completely missed his mark on what he was intending to say with his essay. While he wanted to dispel the negative stereotypes of the lycra-clad road warriors or red-light scofflaws that commentators on various websites rant about, what he ended up doing was suck the entire joy out of riding. Commuting, racing, touring, midnight revelries, grocery-getting, child-moving, dating, meeting, training, tooling are all a passionate extension of “getting from Point A to Point B.” When a client last year, who was astounded that I rode all year long, regardless of rain, sun or snow asked how I did it; I responded to her with a shrug unable to come up with a better response – “Because I just do it.” Sure, there are those fair-weather bike riders that pull out the clunky, rusty chained beaters every spring for the sunny weekends and that is fine. But then there are those people that do it. And if they’re cyclists, they’re cyclists. To become overwhelmed with this bullsh*t over spun politically correct phraseology.

I notice that no one pointed out in the sample article, my biggest pet-peeve; the VAN. You don’t get into a collision with a VAN. Unless the van’s parking brake wasn’t set and it rolled on it’s own into you at velocity I am pretty sure there was probably a foot (or hand accelerator) swerving into you. The PERSON (people first language here) driving the van hit the person riding the bike.

(That’s not to say that people first language or political correctness has its place. Discrimination etc. But, cyclists? Come on.)

paikikala
Guest
paikikala

I’ve started reading “Thinking Fast and Slow”, a description of cognative science, and so far one essential idea is that words, and their repetition, matter. We form ideas and feelings based on what we have seen and read. These ideas and feelings are reinforced the more often the words or associated ideas are experienced. Anyone up for an experiment? post signs in your neighborhood (or better, along a crappy route) that say BIKE = GOOD and see how it feels to ride there in a couple months.

pdxpaul
Guest
pdxpaul

This discussion and the contrived outrage in the OP is why we can’t have nice things.

Can we get another fashion piece, please?

Jim Lee
Guest
Jim Lee

A bicycle turns a human into a big fast animal–the cyclist!

With or without fashion vibes.

merlin
Guest
merlin

The news article example is more interesting to me than the question about whether people who ride bicycles are “cyclists.” The person driving the van never appears in the article at all – and I have observed this in local news coverage too. I prefer to mention each of the actors as “persons” – a person riding a bike, a person driving a car.

bikefrog
Guest
bikefrog

yikes, that guy may not be a cyclist, but he sounds like a real bike snob

Mark Hashizume
Guest
Mark Hashizume

Perhaps whenever a reporter post/publishes their news article of such a tragedy/accident then you can send the editor and the reporter a similar critique to sensitize them for the next time?

Skid
Guest
Skid

He seems to view a bike the same way I view a cell phone: as just a tool. I actually like bike, or more accurately I love them. They are a vocation and an avocation for me. I am a cyclist and a bicycle enthusiast and I do not have a problem with being referred to as one. I am even proud to be a cyclist. I don’t see the description as limiting, I know that it does not describe the beginning and end of me. It is not the language that is divisive, it is the attitude surrounding it.

Dave
Guest
Dave

I wish I could write like Beth Hamon!