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The Light From Gig on Quiz



By Anatoly Liberman

Last week my theme was the history of the word quiz. Now the time has come to deal with gig. The main meanings of the noun gig are as follows: “something that whirls,” for example “top” (known since approximately the middle of the 15th century), “flighty girl” (attested as early as 1225); “odd-looking figure” (chiefly Eaton slang; the earliest citation is dated 1777), “joke, whim” (1590), “fun, merriment” (again 1777), “light two-wheeled one-horse carriage” (1791), “a kind of boat” (1790), and “live performance of popular music”(1926); hence “temporary job”. Today only the last-named meaning is alive in everyday speech. The verb gig “move back and forth” has also been recorded (1693; the dates are, as always, from the Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Gig is believed to be either onomatopoeic or sound symbolic: supposedly, it either renders the sound of a whirling object or suggests quick rotation by its form. Even though the earliest sense that turned up in texts is “giddy girl,” the direct meaning (“whirling object”) must have preceded the figurative one.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the history of gig is the chronology. The word existed at the beginning of the 13th century, “joke, whim” made its way into literature in Shakespeare’s lifetime, two hundred years later a boat and a vehicle called gig surfaced, and at the peak of the jazz generation musicians appropriated the word. Are we witnessing an uninterrupted, even if imperfectly recorded, history of the same word, or does the palindromic sound complex gig possess an inherent force that makes speakers endow it with ever new but related meanings? We do not have the means for an adequate answer to this question, but a bird’s eye view of gig and its extended family may clarify the picture a little.

Some time ago, I briefly touched on that picture in discussing the word geek, and a few things are worth repeating today. The sound complex g-g ~ g-k can easily be found in onomatopoeic words. One of them is giggle, which resembles verbs of the same meaning in various languages: German kiechern, Russian khikhikat’ (stress on the second syllable), and so forth. Gak, gok, gek, gik, and their likes are often used to render the impression made by inarticulate speech. In the past, speakers of the Germanic languages heard cuckoo as gauk. Geese “say” ga-ga nearly everywhere; a byproduct of ga-ga is gaggle. A whirling top hardly makes a sound resembling gig-gig, but g-g ~ g-k words can also denote movement away from the right or straight course. Such are German gaukeln “flit, flutter” and geigen “move back and forth” and especially Icelandic geiga “take a wrong direction.” It is hard to tell what those sound combinations have to do with deviation form the straight line, but words beginning and ending with the same consonant (bib, gag, dud, etc.) do not command respect and tend to denote objects and actions lacking dignity. Their etymology is usually undeterminable. Their look-alikes turn up in a variety of languages, they can be borrowed or native, and they can be coined many times with a similar effect. Dictionaries are not sure where jig came from. It may be English, but Old French giguer “gambol” is close enough (this verb is perhaps of Germanic origin). German Geige “fiddle, violin” resembles Old French gigue (the same meaning). One can imagine that the German fiddle is called Geige because the bow moves back and forth, but it is equally probable that the instrument’s name derives from the sound it makes. I would prefer to trace Engl. gig and German Geige to the g-g verbs of movement. However, the question remains open; their sound imitative origin is not excluded.

Gig, in the role of a “sound gesture,” seems to have lingered in the collective memory of English-speakers for nearly a millennium. It formed words pertaining to spasmodic and guttural sounds, such as giggle and gaggle (was Old Engl. geagl “throat, gullet” one of them?), and to erratic movement. Giddy human beings (flirtatious young women among them), as well as things inconstant and “weightless,” from precarious carriages to temporary jobs, were doomed to be called gigs. A top and a yo-yo qualify for the name whirl-gig. At the end of the 18th century, gig became part of Eaton slang. The circumstances in which this momentous event took place are now beyond recovery, but the motivation behind the coinage is obvious. A gig is a toy, an oddity, a lightweight. So is a quiz. If we are allowed to combine the evidence from the history of both words, the following picture will emerge. People called gigs are eccentric; their moods are unpredictable. This quality endeared them to English-speakers and ensured the longevity of the word gig. Flighty girls were referred to as gigs in one of the most polished books of the English Middle Ages (instructions to nuns how to conduct themselves and how to avoid reprehensible behavior); even then gig must have had unmistakable slangy coloring. 550 years later it was reinvented with a similar meaning in the most prestigious public (that is, private) school of England. The etymology of quiz is less transparent. Most likely, the earliest quiz was a toy. It matters little that quiz “toy” was found in texts eight years later than quiz “odd person.” The recorded history of such words tells us when they were first used by authors, not when they were coined. Antedatings by the team of the OED and by other readers teach us caution. In dealing with slang, special caution is required, for racy, informal speech and belles-lettres are at cross-purposes even today. Finally, what is eight years in the life of a word? All the other meanings of quiz appear to be derivative of “toy.” If so, the paths of quiz and gig to British public schools were not dissimilar. Today they are worlds apart: one is a test in a classroom, the other, a job offered to a stopgap. With the scanty information at our disposal, we should tread gingerly while offering etymologies, but it may not be too daring to suggest that quiz is an alteration of whiz. For the benefit of those who are not satisfied with the tentative nature of my solution, I may add that the etymology of top (the toy) has also been discussed many times and also with astonishingly meager results (“origin unknown”).

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to [email protected]oup.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

Recent Comments

  1. Jonathan Lighter

    My experience in America is that “gig” simply means “job for wages,” the notion of being “temporary” only sometimes being implied. Even the jazz-related “live performance of popular music” may be an overrefinement, since the “job” sense apparently arose among jazz musicians (or perhaps vaudevillians) themselves.

    Lexicographers may have thought it necessary to include the “temporary” nuance owing to common collocations such as, “It’s just a gig (till I [etc.]).” Musical “gigs” are by nature temporary, but “job” itself has long been used this way. The two words have long – perhaps always – been synonyms. HDAS offers numerous exx.

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