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This question has to do with the history of the English terminology used to describe using the bike. Why do we call it "riding" instead of "driving" the bicycle? And why do we "drive" instead of "ride" cars?

In the context of cars, "driving" means controlling the vehicle, and "riding" means being a passenger. In the context of bicycles, "driving" is hardly ever used. Is it incorrect to speak of "driving a bike" when the bike is being used in the same manner (on-street transportation) as a car would be?

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    Fun fact: German has one verb that covers nearly all forms of transport: fahren. It mostly translates to drive, but applies to bikes, aircraft, skis, trains, shopping carts, you name it. A common mistake for Germans speaking English is therefore to say driving a bike :-) May 18 at 5:06
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    English is fun, that's why. It would be technically correct to say that a highway herds cars into single file when going from two lanes to one but it's the worst kind of correct.
    – MonkeyZeus
    May 18 at 15:20
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    Just for curiosity's sake, a lovely court case from 1879. google.co.uk/books/edition/… Around the 1880s and 1890s, "drive" was used, although "ride" was the dominant term (by at least 10 to 1). Current usage of "drive a bicycle" appears to be limited to Indian English, and a few non-native writers. May 18 at 15:55
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    Fun Fact: in spanish it is like in english: "drive" is translated as "manejar" or more exactly "conducir", and "ride" translates to "montar". We say "montar a caballo" (ride a horse) and "montar bicicleta" (ride a bike), but we don't say "conducir bicicleta" (drive a bike), it is not wrong but it sounds weird. I agree with Criggie♦'s answer, also there's some kind of terrain going downhill that riding a bike feels like riding a horse (mine is a Trek Marlin 7) May 18 at 20:16
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    Anything that you get "on" you then ride. Anything you get "in" you then drive. It's not an engine thing; your ride a motorbike and a horse, but drive a carriage pulled by a horse. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Combined_driving
    – Qwerky
    May 19 at 10:55

5 Answers 5

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Driving comes from a root word meaning "applying force." This was defined possibly up to 4,500 years ago, it's hard to prove definitively, but definitely within the last 2,500 years. The ancient words carrum, carrus, carier, etc all refer to various wheeled vehicles that may have either been pushed by humans or pulled by horses, donkeys, etc. They were driven vehicles, and the human controlling the vehicle did not typically sit on the vehicle (either standing on a platform or walking near it).

Both cars and carriages were, at one point, considered "wheeled vehicles pulled by an animal." Other inventions, such as the train, had similar concepts, cars in the back, and an engine in the front. The first cars were also called horseless carriages, with the implication that the cabin area was the car/carriage, and the engine was the horse (which is partly why we refer to engine power as "horsepower"). Therefore, it was natural to state that we were driving these vehicles, since we were applying the force of the engine. Some of that terminology survives even to the modern day, when we talk about the "undercarriage" of a car.

Riding, in the meantime, originally meant to ride on top of an animal, be it horse, donkey, mule, elephant, camel, etc. When bicycles were invented, it would have looked very much like riding an animal, as you'd sit on top and control its movement. Also, we had other devices like sleds, toboggans, and other things we created to ride on top of various surfaces in all kinds of ways.

As such, that became the delineating line between riding and driving. If the vehicle was meant to be sat on and controlled, you were riding, and if you were controlling an external force, you were driving. If both applied, you were still considered riding. Riding is also the word we use to refer to passengers on many types of vehicles; only the person controlling the vehicle can possibly be considered a driver.

Arguably, e-bikes and motorcycles could come under the definition of driving, as one definition of driving is "operating a motorized vehicle", but because of the inertia of language (meaning, a drastic change of definition can take decades or centuries), "driving a motorcycle" is likely not going to become mainstream anytime soon. However, as long as riding and driving remains defined as they are, we will be riding bicycles and driving cars into the foreseeable future. Even automous driverless cars might still be "driven" simply due to language inertia for several decades.

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  • Welcome to Bicycles.SE! Keep up the great answers!
    – Criggie
    May 19 at 22:42
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I imagine the difference has to do with the relevant analogy from when bikes and automobiles first started.

One "rides" a bike because it is very similar to what one does when one rides a horse. Indeed, one could imagine that - had history been different - one name for the bicycle could have been the "horseless horse" (or perhaps "wheeled horse").

In contrast, an automobile is "driven" because the analogy there wasn't a horse, but a horse-drawn carriage (e.g. "horseless carriage"). One "drives" a horse-drawn carriage because one of the root meanings of the word "drive" is the sending of an animal out and away from you (e.g. "cattle drive"; think also of an oxcart). In a horse-drawn carriage the horses are out front, and you "drive" them away from you to go forward. (So it's less about driving the carriage proper, but more about driving the horses which then pull the carriage.)

This sense of "drive" starts to fall apart for automobiles, where the motive force is within the carriage itself, rather than out in front, but the analogy is still there, and people 100+ years ago would have immediately attempted to use the same terminology for a horseless carriage as they would with a horse-drawn carriage. But when bicycles were first invented, there would be no reason to use the word "drive" with them, and instead "ride" would have been the obvious verb.

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    Fun fact: In at least german and hungarian there is a playful name for bicycles that literally means wire donkey ("Drahtesel" and "drótszamár", respectively).
    – Jester
    May 18 at 20:56
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    @Jester, in English, the dandy horse was a predecessor to the bicycle.
    – Mark
    May 19 at 1:19
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    There is also a playful name in Russian (iron horse) but there it is applied for motorbikes.
    – nightrider
    May 19 at 8:05
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    @nightrider Whereas in English, "iron horse" is an old-timey way to refer to a steam train. May 19 at 9:55
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    @Jester: ... and at least the German wire donkey is ridden, not driven. Where as the German bicycle, Fahrrad (literally driving wheel) is driven. May 21 at 12:52
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This is an interesting question, but realistically better on English.SE than Bicycles.SE

I suspect it is the difference between being enclosed vs seated on-top or astride the vehicle. You would ride a bicycle or scooter or horse, whereas if you're inside, it is called driving a car or truck or tank.

You would neither drive nor ride rollerskates because you're not enclosed by them or sitting on top - you're wearing them instead.

Therefore you'd drive a train when in control of it, or "ride the train" if you're a passenger. Originally train passenger wagons were open roof, hence exposed.

On that basis you might "drive an aeroplane", but the term would be to fly a plane. Instead of "drive a ship" you'd "pilot or sail a ship" or some other word for being in a spaceship.


Here's some related questions on English.SE
https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/159712/why-ride-over-ride-or-pilot

https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/21073/does-one-drive-a-motorcycle-or-ride-it

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    Exceptions because English is 3+ languages in a trenchcoat - you "drive a bulldozer" despite being on top and exposed.
    – Criggie
    May 18 at 5:31
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    English has few rules for things like this. There are patterns that fit many cases, but it's full of exceptions that just happen organically. When bicycles first arrived, users may have thought of it more by analogy with horses than coaches, because you sit on top of them.
    – Barmar
    May 18 at 14:40
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    Vague thoughts relating to driving cattle (or still further from bikes, slaves) - that's drive in the sense of compel (to move) rather than to control a vehicle
    – Chris H
    May 18 at 15:02
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    @Criggie But you don't drive a bull, you ride a bull, and "bulldozer" starts with the word "bull"
    – Michael
    May 18 at 15:42
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    Fighter pilots will sometimes jocularly refer to themselves and each other as "an F-16 driver", for example. May 18 at 19:28
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Well, to be honest I don't know the real answer, but I guess that if there ever was an explicit meaning, outside common use, it was lost a long time ago. So here I'll add my guess.

I think that riding is something that requires a more active role, the rider has to keep the balance, not just steer the bicycle. The car driver on the other hand is sitting there, turning the wheel and pressing the pedals, sometimes can get distracted without falling down.

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  • So to paraphrase, a rider needs to balance because the thing being ridden would fall over otherwise? Makes sense for a bike, but would exclude a trike/quad. Also it would make horse riders into horse drivers - they don't fall over without actively balancing. I like your train of thought.
    – Criggie
    May 19 at 12:14
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    A horse rider has to dedicate less attention to the balance than a bicycle rider, but less does not mean zero, a horse rider can fall down as well. Trike? That is ambiguous.
    – FluidCode
    May 19 at 12:17
  • But riding also applies when you're totally passive, such as passengers in a car.
    – Barmar
    May 20 at 14:09
  • @Barmar Yes, but riding a car is not used so much. On the other hand if you say riding the waves or riding a storm you give the impression that you want to give an active meaning to the action.
    – FluidCode
    May 25 at 14:24
  • @FluidCode True, we say "ride in a car" or "ride on a bus".
    – Barmar
    May 25 at 14:34
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Go back to the age of horses and cattle. You sit astride a horse and ride it, just like a bicycle.

If you lived in Texas 170 years ago, you might ride a horse in a cattle drive. In a cattle drive, you take a large herd of cattle and steer it north towards Kansas City.

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