Flea Market

by Joanne Mason on October 28, 2013

flea market

The other day, a friend was telling me about some old electronics he’d found at a flea market.  They included a cassette tape player from the 1970s and a big box of 8-track tapes.  The items were in great condition and he was thrilled his purchase.

When you visit a flea market, you can check out second-hand goods from many vendors all in the same place.

Example 1

Francine’s entire house is furnished with items she has found at flea markets.

Example 2

I dread when my husband goes to the flea market.  We have too much stuff in our house already!

I found two possible origins for flea market.

Robert Hendrickson says the term has nothing to do with fleas.  He and others believe it goes back to the Dutch colonization of present-day Manhattan, where a “Vallie Market” was held on Maiden Lane. This term eventually morphed into “Vlie Market.”  Vlie was pronounced like flea and the name stuck.

The Word Detective shares a similar story, attributed to etymologist Christine Ammer.  Apparently, there was a “fly market” in Manhattan that began before the American Revolution and lasted into the early 1800s. It had been previously called the vly or vlie market, using the Dutch word for “valley.”  These words were pronounced like flea, giving us the name.

But other sources, including Gregory McNamee, author of the 2013 Word Origin Page-a-Day calendar, places the origin of flea market in Paris, where a certain outdoor market was once called the Marché aux Puces (flea market) because some of the used clothing of bedding for sale would be full of fleas.

And in 2009, Matt Gross gave us this explanation in the New York Times:

The marchés aux puces, or flea markets, of Paris are legendary. In fact, the name itself originated at the biggest and most famous, St.-Ouen, just outside the city’s ring road at Porte de Clignancourt, where back in the 1880s (according to ParisPuces.com, a Web site run by the Association des Puces de Paris St. Ouen) an “unknown bargain hunter” looked down from nearby fortifications, observed junk dealers selling scrap metal, rags and old furniture, and exclaimed, “My word, but it’s a market of fleas!”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, flea market made its first written appearance in English in 1922, when George S. Dougherty wrote in his book In Europe, “It is called the ‘Flea’ Market because there are so many second hand articles sold of all kinds that they are believed to gather fleas.”  The Word Detective suggests that if the term’s origin came from the New York market, it would have appeared in print earlier than that.

What do you think? Do you go to flea markets?  If so, what are some of the interesting things you’ve seen there?  Have you ever had a problem with items, having fleas?

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