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“Gig” and its kin

I received a query from my colleague, who asked me what I think about a possible tie between Sheela na gig and the English word gig. A detailed answer would have taken up all the space allotted to my monthly gleanings. Therefore, I decided to devote a special post to it. In the nearest future, I’ll do the same with a few other questions from our readers.

Sheela na gig is the name given to carvings of naked women displaying an exaggerated vulva. Such carvings appear on many churches in Ireland and elsewhere in Western Europe (but mainly in Ireland). I ran into some of the literature on these images several decades ago, while studying the Freydís episode in the Old Icelandic Saga of Erik the Red. (Most people know it from a TV show.) That courageous woman confronted a group of belligerent natives and bared her breasts. Her gesture made the enemies flee. I could not understand why a band of able-bodied men ran away from a semi-naked woman, rather than attacking her with reinforced vigor. Later, I read many works on the apotropaic role of nakedness, ithyphallic figures, and many other things connected with fertility cults, taboos, ritual obscenities, a mixture of pagan and Christian customs, and so forth. Therefore, Sheela na gig no longer surprises me. However, Irish antiquities are not my area, and I have no independent opinion about those carvings.

Sheela na gig. (Image by Brian Robert Marshall, CC BY-SA 2.0)

It seems almost certain that the name given to the carving is late, and I believe that those scholars are right who detect an obscene meaning in gig (Sheela must be a proper name). Whether gig in this phrase is Irish is not very important. It pays off to look at the English words of the same structure. Over the centuries, English gig has been recorded with the following senses: “a flighty girl,” “whipping top,” “whim,” “fun,” “odd person,” “fool,” and “a one-horse carriage” (see such a carriage in the header). Those senses probably appeared independently of one another and have been referred by etymologists to the idea of light or quick movement. All gigs (as it were) are “flighty.”

A reinforced, emphatic variant of gig is jig. (Think not only of the dance but also about the jigsaw.) Its French analogs mean the same. The origin of jig is said to be unknown, but I wonder what one is supposed to “know” about jig and its variants. After all, unless words derive from proper names or obvious onomatopoeic complexes, they are believed to go back to some ancient or comparatively recent “roots.” Here then is the root: gig ~ jig “quick movement”! Some such English words may have been borrowed, because the syllable means almost the same in several languages. The fact that gig “a temporary job” arose among jazz musicians reinforces the reference to the idea of “light, brisk movement.”

Predictably, gag is another word of questionable antecedents. The g-g and j-g syllables appear with various vowels in the middle. Jog has been recorded with the variant jag and jug(gle). We learn from the OED that all those verbs don’t antedate the Middle English period, that they are “symbolical of stabbing or jerking movement,” and that they were not common before the sixteenth century. Their checkered history need not surprise us. Who could have predicted the relatively recent worldwide popularity of the verb jog?! A variant of jog– is gog– in goggle, “expressive of oscillating movement,” we are told. The g-g complex also occurs with long vowels and diphthongs in the middle. Think of googly and of German Geige “fiddle.” Unlike violin, both Geige and fiddle are “plebeian” words. In Old Icelandic, we find the verb geiga “take a wrong direction, swerve.” Cognates in the modern Scandinavian languages (mostly dialectal) are geigla, gigla, and the like. Old English –gægan meant the same. Geige, the German name of the violin, probably referred to the movement of the bow (“back and forth”), like English fiddle (compare fiddle-faddle).

Cuckoo: a bird of ill repute but a boon to etymologists. (Image by JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA 3.0)

As usual, sound imitation and sound symbolism meet. No one doubts that giggle and gaggle are sound-imitative. And once again we come across g-g and g-k complexes with short and long vowels in the middle. The most ancient Germanic word for the cuckoo bird was gauk-, and it is still the same (with some variations) in the modern Scandinavian languages. The reflexes (continuations) of Old English geac– have survived only in some dialects. The difference between g-k and k-k (the latter as in cuckoo) is insignificant, because in attempting to reproduce the bird’s cry, different people hear different “consonants” and “vowels.” As time goes on, words change beyond recognition. Thus, Old English geac was pronounced yeak, and the main consonant was lost (this is probably why geac was supplanted by the much more imitative cuckoo!).

To be sure, when a net is cast so widely, one runs the risk of “rounding up” too many words and calling them related, however remotely. At one time, I investigated the origin of English gawk and had to deal with geeks of all kinds, usually borrowed (I mean the words, not the people) from the Low Countries or northern German. Somewhere one should draw the line, but when one confronts geek, gauk-; gig ~ jig, jog; giggle, gaggle and at least ten more such formations in English and the related languages, one wonders where to stop.

This is a jig, both sound imitative and sound symbolic. (Image source: Kempes Nine Daies Wonder)

The reason for my “round up” is clear. Against the international background of so many sound-symbolic and sound imitative g-g words, one may perhaps risk suggesting that gig in Sheela na gig is part of this multitude and has a low or, let us say, emotional, meaning. Whether “vulva” is meant is hard to decide, but probably this is indeed the referent. In any case, Sheela appears to be placed on a “low,” ignoble foundation. I also believe that those who explained na as a preposition were right. Jack-in-the box, Jack-o’-lantern, and even such place names as Newcastle on Tyne and Stratford on Avon seem to be formations of the same type.

The images known under the generic name Sheela na gig are medieval, but the name, as noted above, appears to be modern (there are no early records). We cannot know whether the figure has premedieval pagan roots. The interpretation of the name does not depend on this object’s function. Whether the carving was supposed to fend off evil spirits, promote fertility, or remind churchgoers of the abomination of lust, gig must have aroused rather obvious associations in the lookers-on, and those associations had little to do with sanctity.

Featured image by Bert de Mooij

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