Why Are They Called Flea Markets?

November 18, 2015

You can probably find a flea market close to you where you can pick up any number of random items, but why are they called flea markets and do they have anything to do with fleas?

The origin of the term flea market, like so many others, is rather murky. The most widely accepted view is that the term arose from the name of an outdoor bazaar in Paris, France sometime in the 1880s called le marche aux puces, which literally translates into “market of fleas”. It may have been referenced with fleas because the vermin infested the upholstery of furniture that was brought out to be sold, or there was a belief they were there. But no one knows for sure. There could be another possible story, as is the case with these things, and this involved a slight change in the words.

Around the time of Napolean III, straight and wide boulevards were constructed in Paris with new buildings being built along them.  The second-hand goods dealers that once occupied the area were displaced, or had to “flee”. The dealers were able to continue to sell their wares, but they did so in front of the Porte de Clignancourt, a former fort, around 1860.  During some particular time, these “flee markets” got changed into “flea markets” and the name Marche aux Puces.

But there’s yet another possible origin, and it may have come from the Fly Market that was in the Dutch settlement of New York in colonial America. The Dutch actually called it Vlie Market, with vlie being the Dutch word for valley. The word was pronounced with an “f” sound in place of the “v”, turning it into “fly” and eventually it may have become “flea”.

The earliest English usage of the word from the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1922, which further muddles where the term came from. Which of these possibilities do you think is correct? One thing is certain, flea markets have been around in one form or another for hundreds of years, and hopefully there aren’t any actual fleas when you looking to buy something.

Oxford Dictionaries
Krrb Blog
Hollis Flea Market
Word Detective

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of great trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium. I hope you find things here to annoy those around you with your new found knowledge.

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