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.

14 comments on this post.
  1. Barry:

    Another use of “gig” is gig’em (gig them) Aggies (Tex A & M cheer). Also to give someone a demerit in the milatary. Probably related to the above, the line of the shirt and pants zipper is called a gig line.
    It has also become short for Gibabite.

  2. ed tronce:

    your theories are wrong …back in the 1920s blues musicians had a hard time finding work,when one came along”God Is Good”was the phrase uttered by many of them.hence the acronym “GIG”

  3. anthony:

    It is hard to ignore the earlier incarnations of the word and then to skip to 1926 as if it magically appeared. Sorry ed, no soap for your perspective

  4. Deborah:

    Sorry Anthony…you lose……..Ed is correct. Do your homework.

  5. Marc:

    Not everything has to be related to religion…

    The main description seems to have more realistic sources. (less fairytales too.)

  6. Tony:

    I’ve wondered whether it’s related to the German word “Geig”, which means a violin or fiddle (both, incidentally, derived from the Latin “fidula”). A German-speaking player might say, for instance, “Heute Nacht werde ich geigen”, meaning “I’m going to be fiddling tonight”. Possibly a complete red herring, but just a thought.

    Here’s another: if you check out the number of violinists in a German orchestra, does that make you a Geiger-counter?

  7. Carmelita Sachez:

    As long as chocolate is involved, I’ll eat any baked good!

  8. Cliff Sloane:

    I would support the French origins of “gig”. It links up with the jazz historian POV that jazz is closely tied to French military bands, more so than the blues. Evidence for my wild speculation would be any printed playlists for such ensembles from French-speaking areas of the USA (Cape Girardeau south to New Orleans) in which gigues are played.


    Living in Iowa, I found this page by following a link from Google. Very Happy I did. Great topic, and great page. Keep up the Excellent Work.

  10. Gordon Hudson:

    I think the word gig came from short for gigle meaning doing a booking but not taken seriously simply a giggle

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  12. Mike:

    Amazing that this has apparently been lost in time…but it’s been known in my family that the origin of “gig” in modern usage since early Jazz 1900-onwards originally was a shortened version of “Get It Going” & was likely referred to as a G.I.G to begin with.

    I don’t believe that this is referred to anywhere on the internet.

    Source: been known in my family for several generations!

  13. Steve York:

    In the 20’s and 30’s there was a severe lack of venues for black entertainers in the southern US. An enterprising gentleman by the name of Denver Ferguson settled in Indianapolis and bought a modest printing press. In addition to normal business he used the press to start a “numbers” racket. He printed baseball cards which the customers used to write in their three digit numbers selections.If the police searched them they just said that they were keeping track of baseball scores. Denver made a heap of money and invested in a night club. He realized that there were few venues for black artists in the smaller towns and sent a few of his numbers runners out to recruit black entrepreneurs including doctors and other professionals to find venues of any nature to stage concerts and dances. Denver would provide the bands and all printed material such as promo leaflets, posters and tickets, thereby starting the first booking agency for black entertainers in the South.This eventually grew into the early days of what became known as the”chitlin’ circuit”, a mainstay for touring swing big bands and later blues and early rock and roll groups.The connection with the word “gig”? The three digit number that people wrote on the betting card was known as a “gig”, giving a whole new meaning to “my gig didn’t pay much” or “I had a great gig” or ” I’ve got a gig for you!”. Denver Ferguson started booking bands in the early to mid 20’s so the 1926 date would tie in. I’ve always found the “gigue” connection to be somewhat unlikely.

  14. Sidney:

    Enthralled by the information that can come from a three letter word.

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