Saturday, January 16, 2010


David from Leelanau County, Michigan, asked about the word gig, an engagement or job that a musician acquires. Talk about a word with many meanings: there are six nouns spelled that way and seven verbs. Here are the noun meanings.

§ Something that whirls.

§ A whipping-top.

§ A set of feathers arranged so as to revolve rapidly in the wind, for the purpose of attracting birds to a net.

§ A flighty, giddy girl.

§ A queer-looking figure, an oddity.

§ A fancy, joke, whim.

§ Fun, merriment, glee.

§ A light two-wheeled one-horse carriage.

§ A light, narrow, clinker-built ship's boat, adapted either for rowing or sailing.

§ A modified form of the ship's gig, used, esp. on the Thames, as a rowing boat, chiefly for racing purposes.

§ A wooden box or chamber, with two compartments, one above the other, used by miners in ascending and descending a pit-shaft.

§ A squeaking noise.

§ An arrangement of four barbless hooks, fastened back to back, and attached to a hand-line, used for catching fish by dragging it through a school.

§ A hole in the ground where fire is made to dry the flax.

§ A demerit given in the military.

§ An engagement for a musician or musicians playing jazz, dance-music, etc.; spec. a ‘one-night stand’; also, the place of such a performance. [1926]

An obsolete meaning of the verb giggle from the 16th century was, “to turn rapidly; make giddy.” The most probable origin for gig is that musicians played at dances, and in many dances, rotation and spinning are standard features. Related is the French word gigue, a lively piece of music, and the Irish jig, a lively dance. But the origin of gig as a musician's engagement is speculation. The dictionaries that I consulted are unanimous: origin unknown.

Now available from McFarland & Co.: Word Parts Dictionary, 2nd edition

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