The reason we’ve dubbed a place of sellers peddling their second-hand stuff a flea market has turned out to be another in a long line of etymologies that doesn’t have one clear-cut answer, but a few plausible, and interesting, suggested explanations.
The French Connection
One idea historians have is that flea market comes from the the outdoor bazaars of Paris, some of which have been around for hundreds of years. According to the association that runs one of the markets today, the term first sprang up in the 1880s when an unknown bargain hunter looked upon the market with its rags and old furniture and dubbed it le marché aux puces (“market of fleas”), because of shoppers’ perceptions that some of the more time-worn wares sold there carried the little bloodsuckers. The first recorded appearance in English that the Oxford English Dictionary lists, in G.S. Dougherty’s 1922 book In Europe, makes reference to this origin: “It is called the‘Flea’ Market because there are so many second hand articles sold of all kinds that they are believed to gather fleas.”
Pascal Tréguer at Word Histories has traced the English phrase back further than that, to a letter from Denmark published in an 1887 New York Sun article that described the last day of a flea market. “I don’t know whether, in this article, flea market is the calque of French marché aux puces or a translation of Danish loppemarked (loppe meaning flea),” Tréguer writes. “According to the Danish dictionary Den Danske Ordbog, loppemarked is either from German Flohmarkt (Floh meaning flea) or from French marché aux puces. The origin of Flohmarkt is unclear according to the German dictionary Duden.”
Getting Flea From Flee
Another possible origin has its roots in the same French markets, but with a twist on the words and meaning. As the city planners of Paris began laying down its broad avenues and constructing new buildings, some of the side streets and alleyways that were home to the second-hand outdoor markets and stalls were demolished. The merchants were forced to take their wares and set up shop elsewhere. Once reestablished, the exiled bazaars came to be known, in English, as flee markets, which somehow got turned into flea later on (though no one seems to have an explanation for why).
Coming to Colonial America
A third explanation comes from colonial America. The Dutch traders who settled New Netherlands (present-day New York) had an outdoor market they called the Vlaie (sometimes spelled as Vly, or Vlie) Market, named from the Dutch word for “swamp” and referencing the market’s location on what was once a salt marsh. English speakers pronounced the word with an f up front (and sometimes a long l on the end), and the Fly/Flea Market and other places like it eventually all became flea markets.
A version of this story ran in 2012; it has been updated for 2023.