Gig

By Maeve Maddox

A reader objects to the expanding use of the noun gig beyond the meaning it has for musicians:

I have received an invitation to attend a ‘revegetation gig’ at a local riverside park in Brisbane Australia. I know that music bands play at ‘gigs’, but to use ‘gig’ to mean a getting together of people for any communal effort, seems pretty sloppy to me. Where does that ‘gig’ come from anyway?

The word gig, as both noun and verb, has a long history in English. Its etymology in any of its applications is unknown.

In the 15th century, a gig was a child’s spinning toy. In the 18th century, a gig was a light one-horse carriage. When I was a child, I heard fishermen speak of gigs used to spear frogs and fish. Not until I went to college did I learn about the musical type of gig.

Some definitions stress that a gig is of short duration:

gig (noun): An engagement for a musician or musicians playing jazz, dance-music, etc. Specifically, a ‘one-night stand.’–OED

gig (noun): A single professional engagement, usually of short duration, as of jazz or rock musicians. –Dictionary.com

Here are examples of this use of gig:

One of the biggest bands in the world, the Foo Fighters, are set to play two massive gigs in Australia and New Zealand to raise money for the victims of the floods and the earthquake.

Welcome to the wonderful world of professional church and temple gigs in NYC.

Gig to mean any kind of job is documented in the OED as early as 1964 in a citation that refers to a man (presumably a musician) who has to work “a mail-handler gig at the Post Office” to supplement his income.

Nowadays, any kind of job–of long or short duration–is referred to as a gig:

I quit that cushy job, sold my sports car, and hitchhiked to Louisiana, where I landed a spiritual gig working tugs and barges from Galveston, Texas thru Venice, Louisiana. The Green Rolling Hills, ed. V. J. Banis, Wildside Press, 2008.

A college professor who lost his [tenured] job over anti-Semitic tweets is angry about losing the gig, but not sorry about his Twitter missives.

Former Windows boss lands teaching gig at Harvard

This housekeeping gig isn’t so bad. I get continental breakfasts every day and discount hotel rooms.

Had my first big catering gig for 150 people Saturday afternoon.

Gig is also used in the sense of session or appointment:

The all-night study gig: a rite of passage

Olympic women’s hockey goalie scores practice gig with Edmonton Oilers

Batting-practice gig with Bonds a dream

Musicians may have introduced it into the language, but gig has caught on in colloquial speech as a useful word for everyone.

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2 Responses to “Gig”

  • Chris Norbury

    The word gig used to refer to (and maybe still does) a small boat used by naval vessels to transport the ship’s captain from his ship to shore or to another boat. Learned that one reading Forester’s “Horatio Hornblower” series when I was a kid.

    Chris

  • Roberta B.

    I’ve used the term to refer to a job of limited duration, even certain consulting jobs that will end after completion of a specific task. However, to use term for a event, party, soiree, conference, workshop, etc., I agree with your reader. A gig is a job, and using it for other types of gatherings probably is not so much sloppy, but an attempt to sound cool, or make the event sound more appealing, especially if it might include musicians who have been hired to play there.

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