The Oxford English Dictionary, (OED) was started four years before the outbreak of the Civil War, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, it is the world’s most comprehensive single-language dictionary in print. The online edition receives 2 million hits per month from paying subscribers. So, we’ll concede they know a thing or two about the English language.
So it was a little surprising but not unwelcome when the Wall Street Journal reported recently that the Oxford (OED) had “softened” the pejorative or negative connotation of the word “biker” in its online dictionary.
In the beginning, the term was defined as people who rode bicycles. Of course in 1903, the Davidson brothers and Mr. Harley attached an engine to a bicycle frame and 50 years later the word “bikers” became synonymous with dirty long hair, denim, leather and tattoos and most often associated with “motorcycle gang members.”
Now OED has tweaked their definition a bit, including the word “motorcyclist” in the description. Calling someone a motorcyclist brings to mind a more wholesome, family image of a hobbyist. A “biker” is much more likely to be someone who is interested in the more hardcore aspects of the two wheel lifestyle, such as drinking and partying.
The OED online site still lists the colloquial term as someone who rides a bicycle. The next official definition is “A motorcyclist, esp. a member of a motorcycle club or gang.”
But wait a sec! The article in the WSJ says the dictionary uses the term “one who is a member of a gang or group.” But either the Wall Street Journal got it wrong, or someone at Oxford changed the words group to motorcycle club after WSJ posted their story.
Not a big difference, but subtle enough to change the connotation. As someone who rides two wheels, is Oxford is saying that to be called a “biker” you have to belong to a MC or a gang?
However, if you thought for a minute the explosion in popularity of the motorcycle subculture had erased any social stigma attached to the two wheel lifestyle, (esp with the stuffy high brow folks who edit English language dictionary’s) then you’re mistaken.
To prove my point, OED defines the term “biker bar” as n. a bar frequented by motorcyclists, esp. one regarded as disreputable.
The only thing we’re left wondering is “how many bikers does it take to constitute a biker bar?”