Discuss word origins and meanings.


Post by Bobinwales » Thu Apr 25, 2013 9:25 pm

My moiety's son is a stand-up comedian. Over a cup of tea today I asked how last night's gig had gone.

I have used the word 'gig' for as long as I can remember having been a gigging musician myself back in the 60s, but never before had its origin crossed my mind. Obviously I looked it up, and it seems that it was in use by jazz musicians at the turn of the last century, but otherwise I came up against the infernal, "Origin Unknown".

I know that there are other types of gig, a light horse-drawn carriage, a boat and a gaff to name but a few, but it is the performance meaning I am interested in.
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Re: Gig

Post by trolley » Fri Apr 26, 2013 2:37 am

Here’s a thought… one definition of gig is a gaff- hook used for pulling in fish. It can also be multiple barbed hooks on a line used to snag fish. There is a method of angling in which you jerk the line up sharply. This is called jigging and the type of barbed hook used is called a jig. It seems possible that jig and gig are related in the fishing sense. Could they be related in the musical sense, as well? A jig is a lively dance or the musical number that it is danced to.

trolley gettin' jiggy with it
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Re: gig

Post by Ken Greenwald » Fri Apr 26, 2013 4:29 am

Bob and John, The Oxford English Dictionary says ‘origin unknown.’ The only source I found that offered any discussion at all is World Wide Words. But I thought this treatment was a particularly unsatisfying stab in the dark. (>:)

Ken – April 25, 2013
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Fri Apr 26, 2013 6:52 pm

Reading Ken's link I wondered whether there is relationship between a "gig" and a "turn". Both can have the sense of a part of a turn of a wheel. So maybe "gig" was a play on a "turn".
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Re: gig

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun Apr 28, 2013 10:03 am

.. trolley it seems you have support from The Word Detective >>
Most dictionaries say that the origin of "gig" in this sense is unknown, but it really doesn't seem that great a mystery. Appearing in English in the 15th century, "gig" meant something that spins, as in "whirligig." Subsequent meanings included "joke," "merriment" and (aha!) "dance." Since playing at parties and dances is every musician's meal ticket early in their career, it's easy to see how "gig" became generalized to mean any paying job.
.. his guess is as good as anybody's ..

WoZ who may shortly give up his gig
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Re: gig

Post by Edwin F Ashworth » Sun Apr 28, 2013 10:12 am

Some people couldn't tell a rave from a writhing desk.
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Wed May 01, 2013 7:43 am

As an aside the origin of gigolo ...

noun, plural gig·o·los.
2. a male professional dancing partner or escort.

1920–25; < French, masculine derivative of gigolette woman of the streets or public dance halls, probably ultimately derivative of Middle French giguer to frolic (see jig2 ); cf. giglet, Middle English gig ( e ) lot, which may have influenced gigolette

... reminded me of the middle english "gigour" being a fiddler (violist).

Surely there could be some connection.
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Re: gig

Post by Bobinwales » Wed May 01, 2013 3:30 pm

You may have something there Tony. The word certainly came from jazz musicians, and they would probably have played in New Orleans... "All I ever do is play for dancing. I am some kind of gigolo".

Is it possible that the verb, 'gigging', actually came first? If it did the link with gigolo seems a bit closer. It is a bit like musicians in London telling their friends that they are playing in "The Glums". That's Les Misérables to us.
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Wed May 01, 2013 11:02 pm

Theroy: below is an indication that gigour was being for musicians generally. (Also in a dictionary J. H. Kaltschmidt - 1837) .And as with "labour/labourer", "play/player" dropping off the "...our" would make the event a gig. The search for this may become my higgs-bosun.

A Glossarial Index to the Printed English Literature of the 13th Century
By Herbert Coleridge

Gigour = a musician. Properly one playing a wind instrument called a gige. ... ut&f=false

Note: I thought a gige was a bowed instrument. ???

Various references show gigour coming from french but
1737 An universal etymological English dictionary
By Nathan Bailey
has gigue being music played in triple time from Italien.

In The History of the County of Derby, Part 1
By Stephen Glover 1829
The afternoons and evenings of most of the fairs are devoted to amusmenst and jollity of the younger people. When these form the principal concern of the day and the stalls are chiefly furnished with ribbons cakes etc it is called a gig-fair
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Re: gig

Post by Erik_Kowal » Thu May 02, 2013 3:49 am

Tony, may I suggest that you contact Michael Quinion at with your detailed findings and ask him to investigate further? I have found him quite responsive in the past.
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Sat May 04, 2013 8:01 pm

Erik_Kowal wrote:Tony, may I suggest that you contact Michael Quinion at with your detailed findings and ask him to investigate further? I have found him quite responsive in the past.
I have now done so.
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Re: gig

Post by Wizard of Oz » Sun May 05, 2013 1:36 am

.. top research tony .. it looks very promising .. well done mate ..

WoZ impressed
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Sun May 05, 2013 10:07 pm

I had a thank you from Michael Quinion.

and I am just collecting other bits here.

I have come across a number of references which suggest a gig is generally used for "work" in the US. This appears in documents such as New York (US not UK) Police reports.

One here from A dictionary of modern slang, cant, and vulgar words, used at the present ... by John Camden Hotten
Gig: fun, frolic, spree.
"in search of lark, or some delicious gig,
The mind delights on, when 'tis in prime twig."
from Randall's diary 1820

I'd like to find this diary entry!


Q. Did you ever write a gig for a man that had a dream? A. I did; yes, sir. ... the police officer that you have spoken of play? ... A. You can play a gig for a cent, for that matter; but an officer, I suppose, would not pay any less than five or 10 cents.
I am quite puzzled by this one. This is a snippet of couple of pages which keep refering to gig but I am not clear to what they refer, ... 2/mode/2up
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Re: gig

Post by Erik_Kowal » Mon May 06, 2013 7:48 am

I've been able to cast some light on the type of gig you referred to in your last posting, Tony, and to the contextually related term policy shop (also written policy-shop -- I found it spelled both with and without a hyphen).

(Note: I've reproduced at length some of the source material I found, not just because it seems relevant, but because I think it is interesting in its own right.)

By way of, I found this definition of policy-shop in the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, which was first published in New York in 1889-91:

n. A place for gambling by betting on the drawing of certain numbers in a lottery.

Wordnik's entry for the alternative spelling without the hyphen corroborated this definition. From Webster's Encyclopedia, 1913 edition:

n. a gambling place where one may bet on the numbers which will be drawn in lotteries.

There exists also the related term policy-slip, defined by the Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia as:

n. The ticket given on a stake of money at a policy-shop.

Below is an extract from Chapter XVII of the Project Gutenberg edition of Timothy Shay Arthur's didactic novel Cast Adrift, published in 1873 (or 1872, if you prefer to believe the Wikipedia article concerning T S Arthur). The speaker, a missionary, is explaining to Mr Dinneford the evils of the policy-shop:
He paused for a little while, and then said, in a quiet, business way,

"In seeking a remedy for the condition of society found here, we must let common sense and a knowledge of human nature go hand in hand with Christian charity. To ignore any of these is to make failure certain. If the whisky-and policy-shops were all closed, the task would be easy. In a single month the transformation would be marvelous. But we cannot hope for this, at least not for a long time to come—not until politics and whisky are divorced, and not until associations of bad men cease to be strong enough in our courts to set law and justice at defiance. Our work, then, must be in the face of these baleful influences."

"Is the evil of lottery-policies so great that you class it with the curse of rum?" asked Mr. Dinneford.

"It is more concealed, but as all-pervading and almost as disastrous in its effects. The policy-shops draw from the people, especially the poor and ignorant, hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. There is no more chance of thrift for one who indulges in this sort of gambling than there is for one who indulges in drink. The vice in either case drags its subject down to want, and in most cases to crime. I could point you to women virtuous a year ago, but who now live abandoned lives; and they would tell you, if you would question them, that their way downward was through the policy-shops. To get the means of securing a hoped-for prize—of getting a hundred or two hundred dollars for every single one risked, and so rising above want or meeting some desperate exigency—virtue was sacrificed in an evil moment."

"The whisky-shops brutalize, benumb and debase or madden with cruel and murderous passions; the policy-shops, more seductive and fascinating in their allurements, lead on to as deep a gulf of moral ruin and hopeless depravity. I have seen the poor garments of a dying child sold at a pawn-shop for a mere trifle by its infatuated mother, and the money thrown away in this kind of gambling. Women sell or pawn their clothing, often sending their little children to dispose of these articles, while they remain half clad at home to await the daily drawings and receive the prize they fondly hope to obtain, but which rarely, if ever, comes.

"Children learn early to indulge this vice, and lie and steal in order to obtain money to gratify it. You would be amazed to see the scores of little boys and girls, white and black, who daily visit the policy-shops in this neighborhood to put down the pennies they have begged or received for stolen articles on some favorite numbers—quick-witted, sharp, eager little wretches, who talk the lottery slang as glibly as older customers. What hope is there in the future for these children? Will their education in the shop of a policy-dealer fit them to become honest, industrious citizens?"

All this was so new and dreadful to Mr. Dinneford that he was stunned and disheartened; and when, after an interview with the missionary that lasted over an hour, he went away, it was with a feeling of utter discouragement. He saw little hope of making head against the flood of evil that was devastating this accursed region.
In 1895 (the same year that the Senate committee which Tony referred to was sitting), Theodore Roosevelt was appointed by Mayor Strong of New York to head that city's police force in the position of Police Commissioner.

Near the beginning of Chapter VI of his 1913 autobiography, he wrote:
The form of government of the Police Department at that time was such as to make it a matter of extreme difficulty to get good results. It represented that device of old-school American political thought, the desire to establish checks and balances so elaborate that no man shall have power enough to do anything very bad. In practice this always means that no man has power enough to do anything good, and that what is bad is done anyhow.
(Any apparent resemblance to the workings of the present-day machinery of governance in the United States is purely non-coincidental.)

Further on:
In the courts the charges were sometimes brought by police officers and sometimes by private citizens. In the latter case we would get queer insights into twilight phases of New York life. It was necessary to be always on our guard. Often an accusation would be brought against the policeman because he had been guilty of misconduct. Much more often the accusation merely meant that the officer had incurred animosity by doing his duty. I remember one amusing case where the officer was wholly to blame but had acted in entire good faith.

One of the favorite and most demoralizing forms of gambling in New York was policy-playing. The policy slips consisted of papers with three rows of figures written on them. The officer in question was a huge pithecoid lout of a creature, with a wooden face and a receding forehead, and his accuser whom he had arrested the preceding evening was a little grig of a red-headed man, obviously respectable, and almost incoherent with rage. The anger of the little red-headed man was but natural, for he had just come out from a night in the station-house. He had been arrested late in the evening on suspicion that he was a policy-player, because of the rows of figures on a piece of paper which he had held in his hand, and because at the time of his arrest he had just stepped into the entrance of the hall of a tenement-house in order to read by lamplight. The paper was produced in evidence. There were the three rows of figures all right, but, as the accused explained, hopping up and down with rage and excitement, they were all of them the numbers of hymns. He was the superintendent of a small Sunday-school. He had written down the hymns for several future services, one under the other, and on the way home was stopping to look at them, under convenient lamp-posts, and finally by the light of the lamp in a tenement-house hallway; and it was this conduct which struck the sagacious man in uniform as "suspicious."


Finally the matter was formally taken up by a committee of the Central Association of Liquor Dealers in an interview they held with Mr. Martin, my Tammany predecessor as President of the police force. In matter-of-course way the editor's statement [in the Wine and Spirit Gazette -- EK] continues: "An agreement was made between the leaders of Tammany Hall and the liquor dealers according to which the monthly blackmail paid to the force should be discontinued in return for political support." Not only did the big bosses, State and local, treat this agreement, and the corruption to which it was due, as normal and proper, but they never even took the trouble to deny what had been done when it was made public. Tammany and the police, however, did not fully live up to the agreement; and much discrimination of a very corrupt kind, and of a very exasperating kind to liquor-sellers who wished to be honest, continued in connection with the enforcing of the law.

In short, the agreement was kept only with those who had "pull." These men with "pull" were benefited when their rivals were bullied and blackmailed by the police. The police, meanwhile, who had bought appointment or promotion, and the politicians back of them, extended the blackmailing to include about everything from the pushcart peddler and the big or small merchant who wished to use the sidewalk illegally for his goods, up to the keepers of the brothel, the gambling-house, and the policy-shop. The total blackmail ran into millions of dollars. New York was a wide-open town. The big bosses rolled in wealth, and the corrupt policemen who ran the force lost all sense of decency and justice. Nevertheless, I wish to insist on the fact that the honest men on the patrol posts, "the men with the night-sticks," remained desirous to see honesty obtain, although they were losing courage and hope.
In the proceedings of the Senate Committee appointed to investigate the Police Department of the city of New York, Senator Bradley and some of his colleagues questioned Morry Oswitz, a 'policy-writer', i.e. someone who took bets and issued the corresponding policy-tickets:
By Senator Bradley:

Q. Some of the senators would like to know what a gig is?
A. Three numbers is a gig.
Q. Four-eleven-forty-four?
A. Yes; that is a gig.

By Mr. Moss:

Q. What was the policeman's gig; what number is that?
A. Twenty-eight-thirty-five-sixty-seven.
Q. That is a gig that policemen like to play, isn't it?
A. They call it the police gig.
q> Do you know whether policemen frequently play policy?
A. I could not say that; I am not acquainted with very many of them.


Q. There is a central place where they draw every day, isn't there?
A. I suppose there is.
Q. Don't you know? Isn't there?
A. It must be.
Q. And the winning is according to the drawing in the central place?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. And the people come in at a certain time in the afternoon and find out whether their gig is won?
A. Yes, that is right.
Q. Now, you say you complained to your proprietor or boss about Beeck [a police patrolman -- EK] not paying for his gigs?
A. Yes, sir.
Q. As a result of that complaint, did you say anything to Mr. Beeck?
A. One day he came in and made a play, his favorite was 10-20-30, the gig - 10-20-30; and he came in and asked me to give him the gig; I said, "I want money; have you got any money;" he said, "Go on; never mind; give me the gig;" I said, "All right;" I gave him the gig, and when I gave him the gig I said, "C. O. D.;" he said, "If it comes out I will pay you, and if it don't, I don't;" I said, "If it don't I will scratch off the book," and scratched it off at once.

By Senator Cantor:

Q. How often did the gigs come out?
A. There is 24 numbers drawn every day, and 26 every night; each three numbers combines the gig, but some of the gigs the people play very seldom come out.

By Mr. Moss:

Q. There are about 17,000 gigs?
A. More than that, I believe.
Q. And a certain number comes out every day, and if a man is fortunate enough to have one of the combinations that comes out he wins his number?
A. Yes, sir.


Cross-examination by Mr. Nicoll:

Q. How many gigs are there?
A. I don't know; I could not say: nor can anybody else say how many gigs there is in the game.
Q. There are other gigs besides the Irish gig, beer gig --
A. There are thousands of gigs; any three numbers make up a gig.
Q. Tell us some besides the Irish and beer gigs?
A. I made out three drawings.
Q. Well, there is the Irish gig, the beer gig, the police gig?
A. The sick gig, and the Monday gig, and the working gig.
Q. Is that all you recollect?
A. I know a lot of them, but can not remember them all.
Q. Is that all your recollect now?
A. That is all I recollect now.
Q. Those five gigs?
A. Those five at present; yes, sir: if I think of them I can count them off for you. [...]
Q. I don't want you to give me the numbers of the gigs: I want you to give me the names of the gigs?
A. Different names: for instance, everybody has a dream, and next morning they come in and tell them to the policy writer, and the policy writer gives them a gig for it.
Q. That gig is not named, is it?
A. Yes; the policy writer names it, and if it hasn't any name, he gives him a name.
Q. Did you ever write a gig for a man that had a dream?
A. I did; yes, sir.
Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia sums it up tersely:

n. In policy, a special combination of three numbers.

According to the World Wide Words article regarding the term gig that Ken Greenwald linked to above, the OED's first citations for the use of the word to mean a musical engagement date from 1926 and 1927. The WWW article says,
The oldest sense of gig was of something that whirled or turned (as in whirligig); much later it was applied to a fast two-wheeled carriage, presumably because its big wheels went around quickly, [...] .
Part of this description of the carriage is incorrect: the larger the wheels, the slower they will need to rotate in order to allow the vehicle mounted on them to cover a given distance in a specified time, because their circumference is greater than that of a smaller wheel. This throws into question the turning rate of its wheels as being the genesis of gig as the name of the carriage.

Citing Dr Jonathan Lighter's speculations in the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Michael Quinion continues :
From the 1840s in the US, Mr Lighter shows it also applied to a form of betting, involving a set of three or five numbers selected by the bettor. From his examples, it seems the winning numbers were drawn from a rotating device, called a wheel, presumably like a lottery or tombola drum, which must be the link to the name. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Mr Lighter suggests the word had begun to be applied more generally to a business, state of affairs, or an undertaking or event. This may have been influenced by a similar sense of gag that had come into being by the 1890s.
So here we have a chain of inductive reasoning made up entirely of hypothetical links (whirligig > rapidly spinning carriage wheel ( > carriage name ) > lottery drum > business venture / event > musical engagement), none of which are supported by specific evidence -- or at least, no evidence is cited.

Given this extended sequence of unsupported hypotheses, I think it is fair to say there is little obvious connection between gig as a type of bet and gig as a musical or other entertainment-related engagement.
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Re: gig

Post by tony h » Mon May 06, 2013 9:10 am

Erik thanks for that it is most interesting.

With regard to your
Given this extended sequence of unsupported hypotheses, I think it is fair to say there is extremely little obvious connection between gig as a type of bet and gig as a musical or other entertainment-related engagement.
I basically agree. But the uses I am finding for gig move me away from a direct transfer from whirly-gig to musical gig. But rather that there seem to be a number of less clear references that gig was used more widely, including for irregular employment (particularly in entertainment), and it was a use of this sort that seems to more easily transfer to a musical gig.

I am looking for some clearer references, location and times that would support this hypothesis.
Anyway I will look for a bit longer.
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