Whirling around on the gig economy

We don’t know the roots of ‘gig,’ but its sound symbolism suggests a certain resilience – which we’re all going to need.

Jeff Chiu/AP
An Uber sign is displayed on a driver's car parked near the San Francisco International Airport parking area in San Francisco in 2015. The growth of the ride service Uber ignited a debate about the 'gig economy,' in which people don’t hold regular jobs in traditional workplaces but rather work as some version of a freelancer.

Are you part of the “gig economy”? Almost everyone is, it seems.

And what exactly is it? 

An article on the US Bureau of Labor Statistics website notes in passing that “there is no official definition of the ‘gig economy’ – or, for that matter, a gig,” and you’d think the BLS would know. 

But the website WhatIs.com has stepped up to the plate on this one: “A gig economy is an environment in which temporary positions are common and organizations contract with independent workers for short-term engagements.” The writer (herself a participant in the gig economy, I surmise) continued, with portentous understatement: “The trend toward a gig economy has begun.”

“Free Agent Nation” is the term for this phenomenon that you may remember from a few years ago. That was the title of a 2001 book by Daniel Pink. “Free Agent Nation” would make a plausible bumper sticker. “Gig economy”? I’m not so sure. 

Are there any lessons to draw from this new term, which the Financial Times says was coined at the height of the financial crisis in 2009? 

Whence gig, anyway?

The Oxford English Dictionary has six definitions for gig as a noun, the first of them going back to around 1225. But it is definition No. 6, a sense Oxford traces back not quite a century, that has given rise to an entire economy, and it reads thus: “An engagement for a musician or musicians playing jazz, dance-music, etc.; spec. a ‘one-night stand’; also, the place of such a performance.” 

To judge just from the sound symbolism, gig is not a word to take very seriously. That short “i” shows up in a lot of words for things that are small (kid) or insignificant (blip). 

But the hard “g” at either end suggests a certain rubberized resilience, a kind of land-on-your-feet bounciness.

The Online Etymology Dictionary dates the musician’s “gig” a bit earlier than Oxford: “attested from 1915 but said to have been in use c. 1905.” 

Neither dictionary offers any derivation of the word beyond “unknown” or “uncertain.” But the etymology dictionary, in its entry for another gig (a two-wheeled carriage, typically drawn by a single horse), speculates that the word was “perhaps imitative of bouncing.” 

That dictionary also identifies a couple of Germanic-language terms very close to “gig” that mean “spinning top,” and also points out that Geige is German for “fiddle.” “[T]he connecting sense might be ‘rapid or whirling motion.’ ”

And let’s not forget whirligig, going back to around 1450 and still used to refer to various pinwheels and endlessly spinning lawn ornaments.

My local post office, I saw the other day, was advertising for help wanted – seasonal “casuals.” Will those who take such jobs identify with those exemplars of career stability, jazz musicians, whose slang term is coming to define the new economy? 

Who knows? But that “bounce” of “gig” suggests a kind of resilience we’re all going to need. 

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