Poets in power ties?

Dear Word Detective:  When most people are looking for work they are trying to “get hired,” but when a musician or band is looking for employment, they are trying to get a “gig.”  What gives?  Where did “gig” come from? — Ron J.

Dude, get with the program.  Every job is a “gig” today.  Calling your job a “gig” is a way of saying “I’m not really emotionally invested in my job, which I find boring and soulless, and I’m only doing it so I can act/write novels/play jazz saxophone on the weekends.”  And it’s not just laconic “baristas” at Starbucks.  I’ve heard corporate lawyers describe their positions as “gigs.” Personally, if I had a job that paid a half-million a year, I’d superglue myself to that “gig.”

Considering that it’s such a short little word, you certainly get your money’s worth with “gig.”  Counting both noun and verb forms, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists and defines thirteen separate “gigs.”  Some of these “gigs” are clearly related, but the trick is figuring out exactly how.  “Gig” is a tricky little word, and, as the OED notes, “the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.”

The first incarnation of “gig,” around 1225, was to mean “a flighty, giddy girl,” although this sense may well have been based on an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “something that spins or whirls” (as later found in “whirligig”).  The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that “gig” may be onomatopoeic or “imitative” in origin, meaning that the word itself was meant to suggest something small that whirls.  This sense of “gig” later came to also mean “an odd person, a fool” as well as “a joke” or “a state of boisterous merriment and fun” (“in high gig”).

Another sense of “gig” appeared in the 18th century meaning “light one-horse carriage,” perhaps based on the “bouncing, whirling” sense of the earlier “gig.”  The same word was later applied to a small boat used to ferry crew to a larger ship, and a small spear used to catch fish was also called a “gig,” although the connection of this to other “gigs” is unclear.  Is it just me, or is this a lot like wandering through a darkened room, stumbling over furniture?

In any case, we now arrive at 1926 and the first recorded appearance of “gig” in print in the “musical engagement” sense.  The OED (and all other major dictionaries) label this usage as “origin unknown,” but there seem to be two theories.  One traces this use to an earlier sense of “gig” meaning “a gambling bet” (possibly from the use of a spinning wheel in some original “gig” game), which then was generalized to mean “a business undertaking,” and then applied to a musical performance.

The other, which I tend to favor, ties “gig” in the musical engagement sense to the original “spinning” meaning of the word, perhaps influenced by the Old French “gigue,” meaning “dance,” which also gave us “jig.”  Since playing at dances is how most musicians in history have made their livings, the use of “gig” to mean such a job makes perfect sense.

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