Generally, the word flea connotes low-rent or cheap, because such places were often infested with fleas (cf. fleabag). The term flea market is a translation of the French marché aux puces, literally market with fleas, an open-air market where second hand goods are sold. From the Belfast News-Letter of 28 July 1891
There is going on just now near the Barriere de Montreuil, at the extreme east end of Paris a sale of rubbish, familiarly known to its frequenters by the unattractive name of the “Flea Market.”
The term quickly jumped the pond to America. From the Janesville Gazette (Wisconsin) of 4 November 1891:
Near the Barriere de Montreuil, in Paris, they have sales of odds and ends known as the “flea market.” A woman recently bought a dilapidated old mattress and, cutting it open, found 14,000 francs in gold.
Some suggest that the term is also influenced by the fact that the locations of such markets are not fixed and jump around like fleas. While this may be a characteristic of the markets, it does not appear to be the origin.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton