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Basem Wasef

Rethinking the Term "Biker": What's in a Word?

By February 27, 2013

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Since I spend a good portion of my time writing about motorcycles, I try to be hyper aware about my word choice and how those phrases convey the point I'm trying to make.

One particular term that has always struck me as prickly is the word "biker." It sounds straightforward enough, but it's also long been associated with negative stereotypes of the motorcycle community. So naturally, I was intrigued when I came across this seemingly trivial bit of news: the Oxford Dictionary Online once defined a "biker" as "a motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang," but they've now added the words "... or group" to the end of that sentence, a small change with a big effect. According to an Oxford University Press statement, "Our research suggests that 'biker' is now marginally more closely aligned with 'motorcyclist' ('a person who rides a motorcycle') than words such as 'hell's angel' ('a member of any of a number of gangs of male motorcycle enthusiasts, first formed in California in the 1950s and originally notorious for lawless behaviour')"

Ladies and gentlemen, this seemingly inconsequential news item is huger than it seems: cagers and otherwise non two-wheel embracing folks are perhaps starting to wrap their heads around the idea that motorcyclists aren't necessary bar hopping, broken bottle wielding gang members out to seduce your teenage daughters and contribute to the general moral decay of society. I may be making a mountain out of a mole hill, but this slightly tweaked dictionary definition speaks volumes about how non-riders view our little world.

What's been your experience? Is the word "biker" no longer as loaded as it once was?

Share your thoughts below with a comment.

Source: Wall Street Journal

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Photo © Getty Images

Comments
February 27, 2013 at 10:32 pm
(1) Sloan says:

I never say I’m a biker. I’ve always said motorcyclist. But I do call my motorcycles “bikes” most of the time so there’s that. I once wrote a blurb for some friends who saw me show up to work on the motorcycle with outside temps in the upper 30′s as well as rainy days. Here’s part what I told them.

In the United States, to the non-rider (and many who do ride), a motorcycle is a hobby, a toy, and something they just do for fun. To me a motorcycle is much more than that. I consider myself a motorcyclist, not a biker. Well, what is the difference, if any? The straight definitions are not REAL clear but one online dictionary says that a biker is a person who rides a bicycle, motorcycle, or motorbike, esp. in competition or as a hobby. The closest definition of a motorcyclist is simply a noun under the motorcycle definition. Then if you look up “ist” it denotes a person who practices or is concerned with something, or holds certain principles, doctrines. Again, that may not be 100% clear in stating what it means to be a motorcyclist verses a biker so I’ll just put how I look at it. To me, a biker is someone who is out there doing it as a hobby. When it gets cold, or it rains, the motorcycle stays in the garage. The motorcyclist looks out the window, checks the temperature,and grabs whatever gear is going to be needed for the day. He may already have everything loaded on the motorcycle, ready for whatever the day throws at him.

February 28, 2013 at 9:31 am
(2) Pete says:

Never liked the word, and I’ll correct anyone who calls me a “biker”. I am a motorcyclist.

February 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm
(3) Ninja Kev says:

I don’t think it’s a mole hill at all Basem and as Pete says, I always refer to my self as a “motorcyclist” or as a “motorcycle rider.” It’s likely that the term “biker” will always be negative (unless you prefer that moniker) and brings the stereotypical traits to mind. Those guys tend to prefer big, heavy bikes, ape hanger bars (SO unsafe), tassels (I’ll NEVER understand that because they look so “girly”) tattoos, rampant meth use/sales and ugly women for company. Call me crazy but I prefer a nimble bike and pretty women!

February 28, 2013 at 4:54 pm
(4) Ralph Couey says:

I always tell people I’m a motorcyclist because the term is a far better fit for my attitude towards my ride and “the” ride.

Do you know what the difference is between a motorcyclist and a biker?

Mufflers.

February 28, 2013 at 5:42 pm
(5) alex says:

Riding in the UK and now in Ireland, I’ve never had a problem with the term. I usually refer to myself as a biker, since motorcyclist is too long and fussy.

In any case, of all bikers, club members represent only a minority, of which gang membership is an even smaller minority and violent gang members are the smallest minority of all. In other words, the cross section of behavioural standards amongst bikers is pretty much the same as you’d see anywhere else in society. In my experience, the guys that dress rough and look tough are often the the gentler variety.

If I say I’m a biker, people look at me and see me for who I am and just note that I ride a bike. If I turn up in all weathers on my bike, no explanation is needed, either.

March 1, 2013 at 9:03 am
(6) Joe says:

I’m with Alex, it ok to call me a “biker”. I have been called worse and some of those times it’s been on here. lol

March 1, 2013 at 9:53 am
(7) Pete says:

Ralph,

If the only difference was mufflers, or lack of, it wouldn’t be quite as divisive an issue. As Kev points out there is a stigma & connotation surrounding the word biker that I want nothing to do with. “Bikers” are the reason people who don’t know anything about bikes / motorcycles, hate everything about them.

March 1, 2013 at 4:58 pm
(8) Alan LaRue says:

I say “motorcyclist” for the same reason as many others in the U.S. The revised definition doesn’t do much to get away from the stereotype. It’s interesting to me that it’s an English dictionary, as I wouldn’t expect the image to be so strong there. Alex’s comment above seems to imply that there’s not really a gang-member image associated with the word in England, so why does the Oxford insist on it?

Most of the people I know who call themselves “bikers” do not belong to clubs, but they do dress the part, playing into the stereotype.

March 1, 2013 at 5:47 pm
(9) Dabber says:

I never correct anyone who calls me a biker. I’ve had HD, Victory, Kawasaki, and now a Suzuki. Now I’m into Adventure bikes.
I think of myself more as a motorcyclist. But what is in a name? Love life!!

March 2, 2013 at 6:13 pm
(10) alex says:

Anyway, the problem lies not in the word, but in the bigots, who judge by association. They’re not for changing, so just ignore them. It’s that simple.

March 2, 2013 at 7:50 pm
(11) Pete says:

Well…so there! Alex certainly told someone…I’m just not sure who.

March 7, 2013 at 1:02 pm
(12) ryde4ever says:

I refer to myself as a motorcyclist. I enjoy riding. I am not interested in a biker lifestyle. I have had too many people say something about me being a biker and in the next sentence ask me which Harley I ride. They assume that I ride a noisy bike, leather chaps and no helmet. NOT. I ride a motorcycle for fun and commuting. Is the word “biker” wrong. No, but the stigma that sticks to the word is.

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