The Grammarphobia Blog

The “flea” in “flea market”

Q; My dictionary says “flea market” is a translation of a French term, but I’ve heard otherwise. When New York was a Dutch city, there was an open-air market on Vlie Street. In Dutch, “vlie” was pronounced “flea.” Thus the derivation. Have you ever come across this explanation?

A: Yes, I’ve heard the story and similar ones. The most common version is that the term comes from the Fly Market, which operated in old New York until the early 19th century. (The word “fly” was apparently pronounced “flea” after the old Dutch name for the market.)

Unfortunately, the first published reference to “flea market” in English didn’t appear until 1922, more than a century after the Fly Market had closed. It seems doubtful that the term could have anything to do with a long-defunct market or its Dutch predecessor.

The most likely explanation is that “flea market” does indeed come from Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen, a sprawling old market in northern Paris (“marché aux puces” means “market of the fleas” in French). The marché, which has been around since 1885, is relatively upscale now, though I imagine the word “fleas” once referred to the uninvited guests that came with the clothes.

If you’re not ready to flee from this subject, check out the “itch to shop” entry on Evan Morris’s website, The Word Detective.

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