Stupid Question ™
Jan. 3, 2002
By John Ruch
Q: Why do they call them “flea markets”?
A: Flea markets, of course, are large, typically open-air markets of second-hand or cut-rate goods. The common explanation for the term is that second-hand items, especially clothing and furniture, were likely to be flea-ridden.
However, as the following story will suggest, I think it’s just as likely it was the sellers themselves who were considered flea-ridden. Nobody knows for sure, but it’s almost certain the term was a joking one.
The term appeared in British English in the early 1920s and is undoubtedly a direct translation of the French term marché aux puces—market of the fleas—applied to several open-air, used-good markets in Paris. This term itself is something of a pun on Paris’ more respectable markets, such as the marché aux poissons (fish market) or marché aux fleurs (flower market).
The marché aux puces started popping up in the late 1800s in what were then undeveloped suburbs of Paris, both because of massive center-city construction projects and because downtown open-air markets had been banned for fear of cholera epidemics.
These markets were started by extremely poor people who scavenged garbage and then offered rags, scrap metal and the like for sale. (Garbage peddling had of course existed for centuries, but it was only at this time that the “flea market” term became attached and these markets became something of an institution in Paris.)
It’s easy to see how middle- and upper-class people could start referring to these as “flea markets.” (Some English-speaking authors claim that the term actually started as “flee” market, because the amateur merchants were forced to flee the downtown area; but “flea” and “flee” are not homophones in French. Duh.)
The largest and most famous marché aux puces in Paris today is the one in the Porte de Clignancourt, in the St.-Ouen section of town. It has more than 2,000 sellers—plus cash machines and high-end antique dealers.
There is a completely different—and completely ridiculous—origin theory that is still propagated occasionally. This relies on the Fly Market, an open-air market in Manhattan that ran possibly from Dutch colonial times up to the early 1800s. The claim is that its name was originally Vallie Market, abbreviated to Vlie Market, then mutated into Fly Market, which with a Dutch accent sounded much like “Flea Market.”
Even if all of this is true (which I doubt), it’s clearly not the origin of the term “flea market.” Fly Market was never written as Flea Market; the term did not appear in print for more than 100 years after the Fly Market ceased; it first appeared in England, not America; and Paris clearly had markets called flea markets.