The English language is a funny old thing, with plenty of mildly different and/or identical words that either mean the same thing, the opposite, or slight variations on a theme, some of which change depending on where in the world you are.
Sometimes this can leave a person wondering whether words that are used interchangeably actually should be – why else would there be two words if they didn’t mean something different at one point? Do “automobile” and “car” mean the exact same thing? (Yes.) Is a “couch” and a “sofa” technically different? (Sort of, but you really shouldn’t worry about it.)
It got us thinking about the difference between a motorbike and a motorcycle, and if there even is one. It’s the sort of argument you might see playing out on a bikers’ forum, but usually without any clear definition or consensus other than the person typing in the most capital letters mostly getting their way. So we decided to see if there was any actual data to back it up.
One of the most common myths on the forums seems to be that a motorbike is a smaller and less powerful machine than a motorcycle, but there really is nothing in any legislation or product specifications to back this strange claim up. If anyone ever says “that’s not a motorcycle, that’s a motorbike!” then we would suggest dismissing their viewpoint and wondering why it’s even important to them in the first place.
The two terms are essentially interchangeable – motorcycle is a combination of ‘motor’ and ‘bicycle’, which can be contracted to ‘bike’, after all – and you’re never in any danger of being misunderstood or laughed at for preferring one or the other, no matter what RoadKing42 says on the forums. However, the two words are used differently in different contexts.
Take a look at this graph from Google Ngram, which charts the usage of terms within various publications in the Google Books archives. As you can see, the term “motorbike” emerged a lot later, and began to pick up in usage in the 1950s.
There are a few reasons for this – motorbike is certainly a less formal word, much like the difference between bike and bicycle. The 50s, with an emerging rocker culture, and younger people beginning to ride, would have seen a less formal term begin to sneak in.
But “motorbike” has not picked up anywhere near as much usage as “motorcycle”. This is partly down to formal publications – legal documentation, insurance, product descriptions, journalism, etc. – using solely the latter, while more informal publications might use the former now and then, but are more likely to use them both interchangeably.
Still, the biggest differences are down to global usage: the two terms are used differently across the English-speaking world. Take a look at this chart from Google Trends, which charts usage online across the globe:
Motorbike is used most in the UK and Australia, where it will also be used interchangeably with motorcycle. However, in the Americas (both North and South), motorcycle is essentially the sole term used. American bikers might refer to their motorcycle as a hog (if they ride a Harley, anyway), but they draw the line at motorbike for some reason. As the Americas have the UK and Australia outnumbered by about 860 million people, global usage of “motorbike” is actually quite low compared to its interchangeable usage in everyday speech in the UK.
So there you have it. What’s the difference between a motorbike and a motorcycle? It doesn’t really matter.