It's the jive/jibe/gibe of the thing

Log canoe sail boat, Oxford, MD. Copyright Tim Dobbyn

The constant evolution of English is fascinating. Words are brought into being swiftly by technology (a tablet is now more likely to be a computer than a pill) or by popular culture. Other changes are slower, as the weight of common usage overturns old conventions.

In the Feb. 2, 2015 issue of The New Yorker magazine, I spotted “jive” doing the work some guardians of English would give solely to “jibe” (or “gybe” in British English). The article was “The Pursuit of Beauty” by Alec Wilkinson, a wonderful story about a math problem solved by a part-time calculus teacher at the University of New Hampshire.

“Bombieri, Friedlander, and Iwaniec had the other important work, but it looked like you couldn’t combine their ideas with Goldston. Their work was just not flexible enough to jive—it insisted on some side conditions. “

And yet more confusion can arise over “gibe,” sometimes meaning to mock or jeer, and often spelt “jibe” in British English in that context. "Gibe" is also an alternative spelling of "jibe." Here’s New York Times columnist David Brooks on May 19 this year:

“That doesn’t gibe with the facts. Anybody conversant with the Robb-Silberman report from 2005 knows that this was a case of human fallibility.”

“Jive” usually refers to a type of jazz music, dancing to that music, or street slang. As for “jibe,” dictionaries give first mention to the nautical definition of jibe/gybe/gibe, the shifting of the boom or sail from one side to the other, to agree with the angle of the wind. The Oxford English Dictionary also speculates that “gybe” may have a phonetic link to “chime.”

So, is “jive” for “jibe” just a slip of the tongue? I would argue that there is more than confusion at work. “Jive” makes sense if you think about things dancing together, or being in harmony. On the other hand, “jibe” is becoming obscure in its maritime sense. English is littered with words and expressions from its past, as the language of a seafaring power. Not all of those words are going to find a berth in what is now the language of business and the Internet.

The Oxford dictionary mentions one meaning of “jive” as: “To make sense; to fit in.” It cites three examples from as early as 1943 in this context, all from the United States, including a Secretary of Defense publication.

(Bonus points if you caught the reference to the Australian movie “The Castle” in the headline)

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