The Grammarphobia Blog

Jibe, gibe, and jive

Q: I see both “jibe” and “jive” used to mean agree, as in “His testimony did not jibe/jive with what he said earlier.” As a sailor, I know “jibe” refers to changing tack while sailing downwind.  “Jive,” on the other hand, refers to deceptive talk. How on earth did we get from point A to point B here?

A: We’re dealing with three similar-sounding words: “jibe,” “gibe,” and “jive.” That’s confusing enough.

To muddle things more, dictionaries recognize “jibe” and “gibe” as variant spellings of each other. And the nautical word for changing tack is spelled “jibe” in the US and “gybe” in the UK.

If you’re still with us, there are two more flies in the ointment. The verb “jibe” has a second meaning, primarily in American English: to agree.

And as you’ve noticed, “jive” is often used for “jibe” in the sense of agreement, though no authoritative dictionary considers this usage standard English.

To get to the bottom of all this, let’s begin with some definitions.

The verb “jibe,” as you say, is a nautical term that refers to changing course by shifting a fore-and-aft sail from side to side while sailing before the wind. (Remember, British dictionaries spell the word “gybe.”)

However, “jibe” has another meaning that’s not etymologically related to the nautical usage: to agree or be consistent with, as in, “Those figures don’t jibe.” The Oxford English Dictionary describes this usage as “chiefly U.S.”

The word “jive” can be either a noun or a verb, as in “Don’t give me that jive” or “Don’t jive me.” It’s a Jazz Era slang term that usually refers to deceptive or nonsensical talk, though it can also mean jazz music.

A third word that’s often confused with these, “gibe,” is both a noun and a verb referring to teasing, taunting, or caustic remarks, as in “Ignore his rude gibes” or “He tends to gibe when he’s annoyed.”

These three words cover a lot of etymological history, so let’s take a look at their origins. (We’ll discuss them in order of seniority, saving “jive” for last.)

The oldest is the verb “gibe,” first recorded in the mid-16th century. The OED says to “gibe” is “to speak sneeringly; to utter taunts; to jeer, flout, scoff.”

Unfortunately, the source of this verb is unclear. The dictionary says it may come from the Old French verb giber, meaning to shake, perhaps used in the sense of horseplay or roughhousing.

The verb was first recorded in English in George Turberville’s Epitaphes, Epigrams, Songs and Sonets (1567): “Speake fayre, and make the weather cleere to him that gybes with thee.”

The modern spelling “gibe” appears in this citation from Robert Greene’s play The Comicall Historie of Alphonsus King of Arragon, written sometime before 1592: “You shall perceiue Medea did not gibe.”

The verb in turn gave us the noun, defined by the OED as “a scoffing or sneering speech; a taunt, flout, or jeer.” The noun was first recorded in 1573, spelled  “iybes” in the plural.

This example from Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1604) has the modern spelling: “Alas poore Yoricke … where be your gibes now?”

The nautical term “jibe” showed up in 17th century. Although the word is now “jibe” in the US and “gybe” in the UK, both spellings have been around since the late 1600s.

Here’s an example from Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel Robinson Crusoe: “The Boom gib’d over the Top of the Cabbin.”

The OED says the English term is apparently derived from gijben, an obsolete Dutch term meaning to jibe.

The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology suggests that the “jibe” spelling was influenced by the noun “jib,” which appeared in the mid-1600s and refers to a triangular sail in front of the foremast.

Chambers says the noun is of uncertain origin but “perhaps related to gibbet, with reference to the sail’s suspension from the masthead.” (The word “gibbet,” another term for gallows, dates from the early 1200s.)

By the way, a verb “jib” was originally used in the early 19th century in reference to horses. The OED says to “jib” was “to stop and refuse to go on; to move restively backwards or sideways instead of going on; to balk stubbornly.”

The first written reference, according to Oxford, is from a letter written by Jane Austen in 1811: “The horses actually gibbed on this side of Hyde Park Gate.” (All the subsequent OED citations are spelled with a “j.”)

As we’ve said, the nautical “jibe” is not related to the agreeable “jibe,” which first showed up in American English in the early 1800s, meaning “to chime in (with); to be in harmony or accord; to agree,” to quote the OED

This word’s origin is also uncertain, though Oxford says it is “perhaps phonetically related to chime.” (One meaning of the verb “chime,” a sense dating from the 1600s, is “to accord harmoniously, harmonize, agree,” Oxford says.)

This example is from Doesticks, What He Says (1855), a collection of comic sketches by Q. K. Philander Doesticks, P.B. (the pen name of Mortimer Thomson):

“I attempting to sing the words of ‘Old Hundred,’ while the lady played the Jenny Lind polka, which didn’t seem to jibe.”

This leaves us with “jive,” a term of unknown origin that showed up—both noun and verb— in American slang in the Roaring Twenties. It has close associations with jazz, Harlem, and black American English.

The OED defines the verb as meaning “to mislead, to deceive, to ‘kid’; to taunt or sneer at.” To “talk jive,” Oxford adds, is “to talk nonsense, to act foolishly.”

And the noun “jive” is defined similarly: “talk or conversation; spec. talk that is misleading, untrue, empty, or pretentious; hence, anything false, worthless, or unpleasant.”

In Oxford’s citations, the verb first appeared in 1928 in the title of a Louis Armstrong record, “Don’t Jive Me.”

The noun appeared in the same year in The Walls of Jericho, a novel by the Harlem Renaissance figure Rudolph Fisher: “Jive, pursuit in love or any device thereof. Usually flattery with intent to win.”

Additionally, in the ’20s “jive” was used as a musical term to mean “jazz,” and in the ’30s it meant to play or dance to jive music.

Finally, in the late ’30s, the OED says, “jive” came to mean “a variety of American English associated with the Harlem area of New York; slang used by black Americans, or by jazz musicians and their followers.”

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