How did swap meets a flea markets get named? I've ever seen any swapping at a swap meet, and I've never seem fleas at a flea market.
-- Nola from North Park
Well, for that matter, when was the last time you saw a garage for sale at a garage sale? If you call it a yard sale, do you have to sell turf? You can't buy a farmer at a farmers market. They don't give you asbestos shopping bags at a fire sale or hip boots at a liquidation sale. Does anyone own a truck big enough to bring home a bargain from a white elephant sale? Do you need a crash helmet or a spare tire to shop at a blow-out sale? Logic rarely enters the picture when it comes to separating a customer from his or her cash.
Common wisdom about the origin of "flea market" is that it came from the huge and very famous March aux Puces in Paris: march, French for market, and puces (pronounced "poose",) fleas. Supposedly the area acquired its name because the jumble of old clothes and household goods were suspected of being full of fleas. Americans who toured Europe during the first decades of the 1900s brought the name back and made it popular here.
But New York City had a so-called flea market back before the Revolutionary War. The open-air store's official name was the Valley Market, which the city's large Dutch-speaking population called the Vly or Vlie Market. Non-Dutch speakers Anglicized the Vly to "fly" and the Vlie to "flea," so the Valley Market was alternately known as the Fly Market or the Flea Market. But the name wasn't generally popular until the French fleas hit our shores 80 or 90 years ago.
Swapping at a swap meet is of more vague origin but may also stem from our early history, particularly Western history, when people would meet on certain days to buy, sell, or trade horses in an open-air market. "Swap" was borrowed from a old German word meaning "to strike." It referred to palms striking in a handshake to seal any business deal, not necessarily a exchange of goods for goods. Horse traders were said to have "swapped a bargain" when they unloaded some nag on an unsuspecting buyer.