Final Word

Catching fleas at Christmas time


They are tiny, highly annoying and mostly extremely evasive when one tries to catch them, but they have a huge linguistic and geographical footprint. They are scientifically classified as of the order Siphonaptera, or ‘wingless bloodsucker’.

We are talking about those little insects that typically use our pet dog as a ‘taxi’ to get around and leave us with some itchy spots – the flea.

As Christmas time is approaching, with hopefully some extra cash from savings and/or annual bonuses in the pocket and some leisure holiday time on our hands, another itch often takes hold of us; the itch to shop.

In the hope of finding that elusive ‘special present’ for grandma or that favourite uncle who has ‘everything’, many of us would be tempted to find our way to a flea market or two.

Flea markets have become such a commonplace phenomenon of modern life that the industry has its own magazine and one Albert LaFrage published a US Flea Market Directory, in which he writes: "Today's American flea market is a modern version of a phenomenon that has endured throughout history in all civilized societies – wherever there is a high concentration of people, there will be market days when they assemble for the exchange of goods and services."

Worldwide the flea market sector is estimated to be worth billions, with some 5 000 such markets in the US alone, accommodating more than one million vendors and 100 million annual customers.

Why a ‘flea market’?

The origin of the name ‘flea market’ for these informal trading establishments that have been around for millenniums is almost as elusive to pin down as the little insect itself.

There are three main narratives claiming to explain the origin of the name:

• The first, related in a 1998 article in Today's Flea Market magazine, holds that it is “a literal translation of the French marché aux puces (fleas), an outdoor bazaar in Paris, France, named after those pesky little parasites … that infested the upholstery of old furniture brought out for sale";

• In a book, Flea Markets in Europe, it is claimed that in the time of Emperor Napoleon III in an effort around 1860 to establish broad, straight boulevards in the centre of Paris for his army to move smartly along, many traders in second-hand goods were forced to move right to the north of Paris. This assembly of stalls just outside the fort in front of the gate Porte de Clignancourt by the exiles from the slums of Paris was soon given the name Marché aux Puces; and

• The third story claims an American origin (New York, to be exact) of the name from its rich Dutch settlers’ history. According to this version, it all started with New York City’s 18th century Fly Market, named after the Dutch word vlaie, also spelled vlei, as in Afrikaans. The word indicates a swamp or valley and this market was located on land that was originally a salt marsh with a brook at Maiden Lane near the East River. Over time ‘fly’ became ‘flea’, this theory holds.

The fleas of wisdom

But that irritating, despised little insect also found its way into many words of wisdom, as captured in proverbs, in many countries, cultures and languages. I could find some sixty-odd proverbs involving the flea. I give you here ten of the best:

In Kenya they say: “A flea can trouble a lion more than the lion can harm a flea”;

The Chinese say: “Don’t strike a flea on a tiger’s head”;

The Jamaicans say: “If a flea had money, it would buy its own dog”;

The Romanians say: “Don't throw your blanket in the fire just because it has one flea in it;”

An old Yiddish saying: “He avenged himself on fleas, and burned up his bed”;

A Jewish father will tell you: “It is easier to guard a sack full of fleas than a girl in love”;

Italians will tell you: “Those who sleep with dogs will rise with fleas”;

In Haiti they will tell you: “A single finger cannot catch fleas”;

In Zanzibar they say: “The death throes of an elephant are not as annoying as a living flea”;

Of unknown origin: “The brave flea dares to eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.”


Our book winner this week, Henry Blaauw with: “A darkroom of blackouts.” To take part in our Collective Noun Competition, click here.

by Piet Coetzer

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