The Grammarphobia Blog

Cycles and sickles

Q: Why does “bicycle” rhyme with “pickle,” and “motorcycle” with “Michael”?

A: Yes, “motorcycle” does usually rhyme with “Michael,” which has inspired various naughty playground rhymes (like “Michael, Michael, motorcycle, / Turn the key and watch him pee”).

However, “motorcycle” also rhymes with “pickle” in several regional dialects, according to the Dictionary of American Regional English.

DARE has examples from Appalachia and the Gulf region, including contributions from Kentucky, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania.

One example cites a lyric from “The Motor Cycle Song,” quoted in This Is the Arlo Guthrie Book (1969): “I don’t want a pick-le / Just want to ride on my mo-tor-sick-le.”

However, “motorcycle” (as well as “monocycle” and “unicycle”) normally rhymes with “Michael,” while “bicycle” (like “tricycle”) rhymes with “pickle.”

So why does the “y” in those four-syllable words sound like the long “i” of “sigh,” while the “y” in the three-syllable words sounds like the short “i” of “sick”?

This has to do with the way those syllables are stressed. A vowel is often pronounced one way in a stressed syllable and another way in an unstressed syllable.

The “y” of “bicycle,” for example, is unstressed and pronounced as a short, or reduced, vowel. But the word “cycle” itself has a “y” that’s stressed and pronounced as a long vowel. Similarly, the “y” of “motorcycle” has a secondary stress and a long pronunciation.

(By the way, “motorcycle”—like “monocycle” and “unicycle”—is made up of two trochees. A trochee is a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one.)

As for the etymology, “cycle” first appeared in the 14th century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It originally meant a recurring period of time, such as a “lunar cycle” or a “solar cycle,” and it ultimately comes from the words for “circle” in classical Latin (cyclus) and Greek (κύκλος).

The noun took on the sense of a pedal-powered, wheeled vehicle in the 1870s, when it began to be used as a short form of the somewhat older words “bicycle,” “tricycle,” “monocycle,” and “unicycle.”

Earlier in the century, the term “velocipede” was used for a lightweight wheeled vehicle propelled by the rider. (As the OED comments, it was also called a “bone-shaker.”)

Oxford’s earliest example of “velocipede” is from a June 19, 1818, entry in the diary of William Sewall:

“Then I went to the circus and rode on the velocipede, which is a new machine.” (The diary begins in Maine, Sewall’s birthplace, and ends in Illinois.)

The dictionary’s earliest example for “bicycle” and “tricycle” is from the Sept. 7, 1868, issue of the Daily News (London): “Bysicles and trysicles which we saw in the Champs Elysées and Bois de Boulogne this summer.”

The words “monocycle” and “unicycle” showed up the following year in The Velocipede: Its History, Varieties, and Practice, an 1869 book by J. T. Goddard:

“A New York mechanic has devised a monocycle or single machine, which consists of a wheel eight feet in diameter, with a tire six inches wide” … “Hemming’s Unicycle or ‘Flying Yankee Velocipede.’ ” (We’ve expanded the first OED citation.)

The short use of “cycle” to mean a pedal-powered vehicle showed up the next year in “The Natural History of Bicycles,” an article in the February 1870 issue of Belgravia, a London magazine:

“Another idea for a monocycle (which, by the way, might be called a ‘cycle’ at once, for shortness) was to make a gigantic wheel, some twelve feet in diameter, with cranks on each side of the axle, and short stilts attached to these, to be worked by the rider’s feet.” (Again, we’ve expanded the OED citation.)

Later that same year, in August 1870, this passage appeared in the journal English Mechanic and Mirror of Science:

“I have never yet seen a bicycle, tricycle, or any other kind of cycle … which did not completely use up the whole muscular energy of the most muscular of muscular Christians.”

Finally, the first Oxford example for “motorcycle” is from the Atlanta Constitution, June 17, 1894:

“Some inventive genius with more activity in his brain than in his legs, has devised a cycle which appears to meet the utmost requirements of pure laziness. It is called the motor cycle and the propelling power is produced by coal oil.”

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