English English language Etymology Expression Language Phrase origin Usage Word origin Writing

The jig is up

Q: I am familiar with the phrase “the jig is up,” though I am not familiar with its origin. And I keep hearing people mispronounce “jig” as “gig.” Maybe they think “gig” makes more sense.

A: In the expression “the jig is up,” the noun “jig” means a trick or a joke. When “the jig is up,” the trick has been exposed and the game is over. The “j” is pronounced like the one in “jolly.”

The word “jig” has had this meaning since the late 16th century, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “a piece of sport, a joke; a jesting matter, a trifle; a sportive trick or cheat.”

(The other word you mention—“gig” in the sense of a job or engagement to perform—dates from the 1920s. As we wrote in a 2010 post, it’s probably of African-American origin. Here, “g” sounds like the one in “golly.” )

Interestingly, some people are misusing the expression in writing too, as in this HuffPost headline from Nov. 20, 2020:

Joe Scarborough Lays Down Ultimatum To Mitch McConnell Over Trump Support

“The gig is up,” the MSNBC “Morning Joe” host said in a withering monologue aimed at the Senate GOP leader.

However, sometimes “the gig is up” is a pun, as in this headline about independent-contractor jobs: “The Gig Is Up for Uber in the U.K.” (Wall Street Journal, March 17, 2021).

Here’s the earliest OED example for the “jig” that’s a con or a trick (the plural “jigs” is spelled “Iygs,” with a capital “i” instead of the modern letter “j”):

“Looke to it you Bookesellers & Stationers, and let not your shops bee infected with any such goose gyblets or stinking garbadge, as the Iygs of newsmongers.” From Thomas Nashe’s 1592 satire Pierce Penilesse His Supplication to the Diuell [Devil]. (Nashe is railing against the pamphleteers of the day; we’ve expanded the quotation to give more context.)

This OED example has the modern spelling: “When the Major now perceived the Jig, and how Kitchingman had fooled him, he could have pulled the Hair off his Head.” From Flagellum (1663), James Heath’s biography of Oliver Cromwell.

As for “the jig is up,” it means “the game is up” or “it is all over,” says the OED, which labels the usage “now dialect or slang.”  These are the dictionary’s earliest examples, starting with an older version, “the jig is over”:

“Mr. John Miller came in and said, ‘The jig is over with us’ ” (The Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, June 17, 1777).

“As the Baltimore paper says, ‘The Jigg’s up, Paddy’ ” (The Philadelphia Aurora, Dec. 17, 1800).

William Dean Howells left no doubt about the phrase’s meaning when he wrote, “The die is cast, the jig is up, the fat’s in the fire, the milk’s spilt” (Harper’s Magazine, February 1894).

And since we can never resist quoting P. G. Wodehouse, here’s a final example: “You’re in the soup, Miss Briggs. The gaff has been blown, and the jig is up” (Service With a Smile, 1961).

The origin and history of “jig” are uncertain. Several similar and apparently related nouns spelled “jig”—a lively dance, the music for such a dance, a comic entertainment, as well as the “jig” that’s a trick or con—all emerged in the last half of the 16th century. And the order in which those senses developed isn’t clear.

What the dictionary suggests is that “jig” may simply be onomatopoeic in origin, “the large number of words into which jig- enters indicating that it has been felt to be a natural expression of a jerking or alternating motion.” (It’s interesting that in the late 1590s, when a “jig” was a joke or a con, a “jerk” could mean a witticism or an insult.)

The OED dismisses suggestions by some etymologists that the noun “jig” came from Old French, in which a gigue was a medieval stringed instrument. The Old French word, Oxford says, “had none of the senses of jig, it was also obsolete long before jig is known to have existed.”

Furthermore, the modern French gigue, for the dance and the music, came a century after the English noun, in the last half of the 17th century. It didn’t come from the earlier word for the stringed instrument, the OED says, noting suggestions that it was “simply adopted [from] English jig.”

There’s also a verb “jig,” first recorded in 1598. Some of its senses—to sing or dance or play a jig, or to move jerkily—“evidently” came from the noun, the OED says.

The dictionary also dismisses any connection between the verb “jig” and earlier, obsolete French verbs meaning to frolic (giguer) or kick (ginguer): “this resemblance may be merely accidental, or due to parallel onomatopoeic influence.”

In fact, “jigging” has long been associated with jerking, jogging, and fidgeting. The phrase “jig-a-jig” (or “jig-a-jog”), from the early 1600s, was used adverbially to mean “with a jigging or jogging motion,” the OED says, and arose from “imitative words expressing reiteration or alternation of light, short, jerky movements.”

We’re reminded of an old nursery rhyme that evokes a creaky wagon bumping its way home. There have been many iterations over the centuries, but we like the Mother Goose version:

To market, to market to buy a fat pig;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jig.
To market, to market, to buy a fat hog;
Home again, home again, jiggety-jog.

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