Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why is it called that?”: The Flea Market Edition

Jewelry table at the outdoor Natick Flea Market (Photo: Natick Flea Market)

On learning that Natick, Massachusetts has a flea market that runs from April to October on the first Sunday of each month, Daddyo naturally wanted to know:

“Why is it called a flea market?”

Well, Daddyo, I’d be happy to answer that. If only I could.

Here’s the problem. Like chickenpox, the flea market origin story is a Choose-Your-Own-Linguistic-Adventure.

Option 1: Flea came from Vlie, the Dutch word for marsh.

Once upon a time there was an open-air market located on a salt marsh with a brook in 18th century New York City.

The Dutch word for marsh is vlie or vlaie, so the Dutch settlers in New York took to calling the little market on Maiden Lane near New York’s East River the Vlie Market. The Dutch “v” is pronounced very much like our English “f”, so very little time was needed to transform the Vlie Market into Fly Market. And once that happened, another short linguistic hop was all it took to generate our current Flea Market.

Option 2: The term Flea Market is a literal translation of the French term marché aux puces (the market where one acquires fleas).

According to a 1998 article by Albert LaFarge published in Today’s Flea Market magazine, the term referred to an outdoor market in Paris, France where savvy shoppers could buy old furniture infested with fleas.

Option 3 is another translation-from-French theory, but with a slightly different meaning to the original French term.

Like Option #2, this theory, which comes from the book Flea Markets by Jean-Claude Baudot, claims the original French term referred to a ramshackle open-air market in Paris, France. In this version, Napeoleon’s grand vision of an elegant Paris center with stately houses lining broad, straight boulevards wide enough for an army to parade down forced many second-hand dealers to flee their shops in the slums in 1860. The dealers were forced to set up shop instead in the north of Paris. The market set up by these exiles came to be known as the marché aux puces or flee market (later translated to today’s “flea market”).

So, which story do you like the best? And do you know of any others?


3 Responses to ““Why is it called that?”: The Flea Market Edition”

  1. Shala Howell

    A friend of mine who lives in Germany wrote in this week with this correction:

    “I don’t know which theory is most likely to be correct, but ‘ie’ in Dutch (and German, for that matter) is pronounced like a long ‘e’ (in the English ‘feet’). So ‘Vlie’ would pretty much sound like ‘Flea’ without the need for an intervening ‘Fly’ step. [Of course, if English-speakers saw the word written rather than heard it spoken, they might have guessed it’d be pronounced closer to ‘Fly.’]”

    Thanks, Susan!



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