Language Lounge

A Monthly Column for Word Lovers

What's Up? The Gig or the Jig? (And Other Conundrums)

All of us have probably misheard or misconstrued the words in a popular saying, with the result that we substitute one or more words in the phrase with incorrect ones that make sense on some level: perhaps only to us, perhaps to our wider audience. Linguists take an interest in such slips and classify them variously, depending on how they are analyzed. One bucket in which we can collect these blunders is the mondegreen, most commonly understood as misheard song lyrics that give a different meaning. Another is the eggcorn, in which perceived meaning may be unaffected, despite the misinterpretation of one or more words. Related to both of these is the useful though not widely accepted category of oronym, which you might think of as a homophone that extends across word boundaries, especially when pronunciation is imprecise: such as Iraq's oil minister and a rock soil minister.

I wrote about some of these a while back here. A small class of these expressions continues to interest me greatly: the common elements are either a confusion between two similar expressions, or a pair of expressions in which two versions compete as the "proper" one, with the result that some speakers, especially those new to the expression, are never quite clear on which one is correct. After a time, it seems pointless to insist on one over the other, especially when corpus evidence suggests that the version of a saying preferred by old-school prescriptivists is losing ground to a newer version.

One that I wrote about formerly was the confusion between one and the same (the proper version) and its confused partner one in the same. I illustrated that confusion with a form from the Colorado Department of Revenue website. I can now happily report that the form in question is correctly titled "Statement of One and the Same." But the memo did not get through to all departments because we still find, on another official form, the following:

So perhaps it's time for purists to stop objecting to the alternative form. One in the same makes about as much sense, syntaco-semantically, as I can't help but think, which is widely accepted without blinking. One and the same is a simple redundancy; these are also widely accepted in many fixed expressions.

Another expression is the one I alluded to in my title: the jig is up, which may mean "no chance remains" or "the plot has been discovered" or "the current course cannot succeed", depending on context. No argument here that the jig is up is the original and correct one; it dates to the 1830s in written form. Today, however, the gig is up appears with increasing frequency in corpora and generally in the printed word:

Speakers seem to mean the same thing by it. Here are some examples:

The moment that faith begins to wane, the gig is up and the false wealth that the paper once seemed to represent rapidly falls to its true value, zero.

No hate, just facts and common sense, folks: the gig is up. Socialism will fail, ask any Eastern European friends you have.

Soon Hamas will figure the gig is up and will flee to ISIS.

Shall we countenance this pretender version of the phrase as legitimate? I don't see how it can be resisted. To begin, both gig and jig are richly laden homographs in English: together they represent at least half a dozen meanings, depending on which dictionary you're consulting. So there's a good chance that speakers hearing one or the other word in the expression will be able to connect it to a sensible meaning. But speakers today are far more likely to be acquainted with a gig (temporary remunerative work) than a jig (16th century dance), and it's not that far a stretch to arrive at the correct meaning with either version of the phrase, or to conclude that gig is the form that makes the most sense — especially if you don't know a jig from a gavotte.

A more complicated case I notice lately is a confusion between run the gamut and run the gauntlet. First, let's dismiss out of hand one pretender to canonicity here, and that is run the gambit. No, no, no, you cannot run the gambit--unless, perhaps, you are playing chess and your audience knows which of several available gambits you might be running. But some writers think a gambit is a gamut, only spelled differently:

These concerts run the gambit from Yo-Yo Ma to John Legend to the annual summer residency of the nation's finest orchestra, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

His life as a laborer has run the gambit from chopping cotton to working for the telephone company.

A thing can run the gamut (show wide range or variation, as in the two examples above) and a person can run the gauntlet (suffer severe criticism or harrowing trials). These are clearly two very different things, and so the distinction between these two phrases should be preserved. It would be a wonderful thing if that message could get through to Mr. and Ms. Scribe, whose work is found widely on the Internet:

Today's fathers' roles differ from family to family.  It runs the gauntlet from solo fathers to fathers who do not want to have anything to do with their children or just do not have time.

"The Southerner's Cookbook" includes more than 125 recipes using a gauntlet from appetizers to dessert,  with Southern cocktails thrown in for good measure.

Here we have no one to blame for the confusion except English itself, which borrows widely and indiscriminately from other languages but also likes to make its borrowings feel at home by looking and sounding like existing words in the language. Gamut, gambit, gauntlet, gavotte. So much to choose from!

In my earlier column about these matters, reader Dan F. of Minneapolis commented about a confusion between home in (the canonical version) and hone in (the pretender). This may also be a distinction not worth insisting on, though it withers my soul to say so because hone is a transitive verb. By accepting hone in, speakers are effectively licensing hone to perform intransitively in this one expression. Written evidence, however, suggests that that hone in often flies past the editor’s blue pencil:

Both home and hone connote a sharpening or narrowing of focus, and so the confusion is understandable. Does understandable mean acceptable in such a case? I can't help but think that it does.

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Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.