08:24 PM EDT Aug 13



By Blair Shewchuk
CBC News Online

Not long after Canadian Alliance MP Deborah Grey suggested Stockwell Day "go home and look in the mirror" to decide if the party would be better off without him as leader, we did some reflecting of our own.

It began with an e-mail complaint about a story we posted, Grey to Day: 'The jig is up' :

Deborah Grey clearly states that the "GIG" is up, not the "JIG" as you report.

When someone says the "gig" is up, they mean that an engagement has played its course.

When someone says the "jig" is up, it indicates that a scoundrel has been found out, and the forces of law and order are on their way.

Clearly, there is a vast distinction between the two words.

I'm no lover of Day (nor of Grey, either, for that matter) as honourable as he (and she) may be, but the CBC has obviously given her words a slant that was not evident in the actual quotation.

I'd say the jig is up for the CBC!

Steve Liversidge

At first there don't appear to be any shades of gray (or grey) here. She said "gig" and we typed "jig." CBC News Online corrected the mistake when it was spotted.

But how did a "g" become a "j"? Was there ever any reason to believe that the MP might actually have said "jig"? And are the two expressions really so fundamentally different?


Grey's comments, made in a crush of reporters on June 5, 2001, were recorded and transcribed:

"I think he has to make some pretty serious decisions right now. And I think, fairly simply, the gig is up."

An experienced CBC journalist editing the story for the Web thought that the word in the quotation was actually jig, which has also been spelled gig over the centuries (as in gigue and gigolo).

But just as we don't write "gaol" for "jail" any more, "gig" with a soft "g" isn't used either. So after checking the 1998 Canadian Oxford Dictionary, which lists "jig is up" but not "gig is up," he changed gig to jig to conform to our style.

We weren't the only ones to mishear or misread the quote. A transcript of CBC TV's The National, provided by a closed-captioning service and posted on the Web the next day, also used "j" instead of "g".

No one danced in our newsroom when the audio was reviewed and we found out that "jig" was wrong.


The phrase "the jig is up" surfaced more than 200 years ago. The exact origin is unknown, with speculation ranging from the end of a musical performance to the removal of a fishing line (a jig) from water – although the anglers' term didn't catch on until the 1860s, so this seems unlikely.

Some scholars believe it originally referred to the end of either a trick or game, since the word jig (sometimes spelled gig) had acquired this meaning by the time Shakespeare was writing plays.

The first recorded use of "the jig is over" appeared in 1777. About 20 years later, a Philadelphia newspaper published the earliest known version of our current expression – throwing in an extra "g" (the jigg is up) for good measure.

What does "the jig is up" imply today? The Canadian Oxford defines it as a scheme that's been "revealed or foiled," while Webster's suggests it means "all chances for success are gone" – especially when applied to "risky or improper" strategies.

The gigantic Oxford English Dictionary broadens the scope to "the game is up, it's all over." The Gage Canadian Dictionary says the expression is slang for "it's all over; there's no more chance," and The Houghton Mifflin Canadian Dictionary of the English Language offers a similar entry: "the game is up; all hope is gone."

As with many words and phrases, then, there is a spectrum of meaning. What's obvious, however, is that "the jig is up" could easily be uttered with conviction by a disgruntled Alliance MP who believes that "it's all over" for the party if the leader doesn't quit.


Replacing the "j" with a hard "g" (as in "guffaw") suddenly makes the expression far less familiar, if not actually strange, to the ear and eye.

Musicians have called short-term jobs "gigs" since the early 20th century – especially one-night engagements. But do jobs ever become up? Certainly contracts can be up, which means they've expired on a specific date. But gigs?

Although there is no reason we couldn't start saying "the gig is up" to mean "the gig is over," the phrase isn't well established.

"The jig is up," on the other hand, is cited by lexicographers all over the western hemisphere. Indeed, in his Dictionary of Historical Slang, Eric Partridge points out that "the jig is up" was actually "standard English" until 1850, when it slid down a few notches to colloquial status.


Good editors and writers abhor cliches, and resist them like the plague until the cows come home. So when speakers jiggle a phrase slightly the change is often considered a welcome relief.

But if we're accustomed to reading certain terms (landlubber, for example, or nip it in the bud), our eyes question transcriptions that don't match (landlover and nip it in the butt.) Are these intentional changes or gaffes?

Some decisions are easy. If somebody, for instance, talks about "gilding the lily" we don't fix the error – even though the correct, and logical, quote from Shakespeare refers to the unnecessary labour of "painting the lily" that nature has already coated in glorious brush strokes.

But if someone talks about the tenants of an organization instead of the tenets it's a tougher call for the journalist. Do we type the wrong word? If we failed to fix what linguists label metathesis, we would wind up with a lot of quotes about the intregal (instead of integral) aspects of everything from the benefits of perscription (instead of prescription) drug plans to the dangers of nucular (instead of nuclear) war.

Metathesis and other twists of the tongue, of course, are all part of our language's evolution. Old words like "sweetard" (as in drunkard) have evolved to "sweetheart," and some dictionaries now serve up "sherbert" along with the original dessert: "sherbet."


Listening to a recording of an interview does not guarantee accurate quotes. One of the quirks of English is that different words, all sounding virtually identical, may or may not mean the same thing.

Gibe, for instance, can suggest "sneering, scoffing, or taunting." It dates back to the 1500s, according to Oxford, and may have come from an Old French term for handling roughly ("giber.") Jibe is an alternative spelling. Jive is a 20th century version.

Jibe is also defined as "to agree or be in accordance with" someone or something. In North America, jive has now taken on this connotation too, along with a scattering of other meanings – including attempted deception.

A further complication with jibe is that it can also mean gybe, nautical jargon for a certain kind of course change using sails.

These are all examples of how journalists can botch up quotes even when they transcribe recorded interviews as painstakingly as possible. (Did she say "don't gibe me" or "don't jive me?")

Going back to the speaker for clarification is rarely practical and sometimes impossible before a deadline. Responsible journalists remove quotes they're not sure about, but occasionally it turns out they've misheard or misread a word without knowing it.


Some pundits might say that Deborah Grey was doing some gibing, or taunting, when she suggested the gig was up – managing to imply her party's leader should resign without actually using the "r" word banned by caucus.

Others, however, could argue that the big news in the Alliance that day involved jibing in a tempest – Grey's sudden switch in direction, and the possibility that other MPs would abandon Stockwell Day's ship and frantically sail after her.

Our use of jig instead of gig didn't sit well with some people. The gist of our response: we meant well but tripped.

It's important to point out, however, that when the story was first written there was no jiggery-pokery behind the scenes – a late 19th century term believed to be a variation of a Scottish expression (joukery-pawkery) for "deceitful or dishonest dealing."

We thought Grey said "the jig is up," slang that's been around for hundreds of years. The phrase doesn't necessarily imply something nefarious, according to many dictionaries. "Jig" appeared to suit the story, while the transcribed quote "gig is up" looked like a misspelling.

With gigabytes of sound bites bombarding our newsrooms every day, mistakes are bound to sneak past. Journalists, like everyone else, are fallible.

We can't guarantee we'll catch all the errors, but we can promise to try – as well as pledge to post corrections when our words don't jibe or jive with the facts.

(June 12, 2001)

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