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Ask Our Lawyer - April 2002

Q: People say I’m a biker. What’s a biker? Is that a good thing?

A: Depends on your attitude, I suppose. The word “biker,” like many others, has multiple meanings, some of which are positive, and some of which are not. Not even dictionaries can agree on the definition. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary defines a biker as “motorcyclist; especially one who is a member of an organized gang.” The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language notes a biker is “1. One who rides a bicycle or a motorbike. 2. A motorcyclist, especially a member of a motorcycle gang.” Meanwhile, our British cousins define a biker as “someone who rides a motorcycle or bicycle,” in the Cambridge Dictionary of American English. Curiously, the Cambridge International Dictionary of English notes an informal usage of biker as “a member of a gang group of motorcyclists.” The Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang notes that the meaning of “biker” as “gang member” became current usage in 1968. Of course, the term would have been used informally for some time before that. Prior to 1981, Webster’s had no definition for biker at all, and was added in order to better reflect current trends in popular usage, according to a spokes- person for Webster’s.
How did we get from “motorcycle rider” to “gang member?” The exact route is unclear, but three events seem to have solidified the “gang member” connotation for bikers. The first is the Hollister, CA rally of 1947. Shortly after the end of WWII, large numbers of demobilized troops turned to motorcycling for recreation, camaraderie, and as a way of dealing with the lingering horrors of war. One of the gatherings of riders that caught the attention of the press was a rally held in the town of Hollister, California, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Life Magazine, in an effort to portray the spirit of motorcycling, staged a picture of a man sitting on top of a motorcycle amid a pile of beer bottles. The myth of the biker was born.
Two other events brought the myth into clear focus for the masses, and both were images from the movies. The 1954 release of Brando’s “The Wild One” and 1969's “Easy Rider” cemented the image of bikers as marauding, out-of-control gang members. Subsequent movies and books have relied on those associations to the point where the mental image of “biker” becomes Brando or Dennis Hopper.
It’s a shame that a conscientious, hard-working, freedom-loving group of individualists are defined by media image and a few bad apples. How do we change the image? We keep doing the things we always do: respect others, defend our rights, participate in our communities, help the less fortunate, and ride safely. But also have to do more. We can contact those publishers of dictionaries and let them know that bikers aren’t gang members any more than any other group is. ABATE Legal Services has taken the lead by writing to the publishers of Webster’s and other dictionaries to ask that they make modifications to the definition to clarify the usage. We will keep you posted on any responses from the publishers. You can make sure that your newspapers and TV stations don’t engage in mindless stereotyping by letting them know (politely!) when they have done so. And we all can continue to be ourselves, proud of our lifestyles and unafraid to show the world that we ride.

If you have any questions you would like to ask the lawyer, please submit them to: ASK OUR LAWYER, P.O. Box 2850, Indianapolis, Indiana 46206-2850.