Like so many words, the etymology of “gig” — as in “gig economy” — is a mess. There may be a relation to “gag,” and Green’s Dictionary of Slang lists a variety of meanings dating from the 1600s: In addition to the popular sense as a musician’s transient job, the word has referred to a joke, a coup, an event, and — in its earliest known uses — a swindle or con job, a meaning that may appeal to anyone who feels shortchanged by their gig.
Tina Brown may not have known that, but certainly captured the multiple meanings back in a 2009 Daily Beast article: “To people I know in the bottom income brackets, living paycheck to paycheck, the Gig Economy has been old news for years. What’s new is the way it’s hit the demographic that used to assume that a college degree from an elite school was the passport to job security.” What’s also new in the past few years is the prominence of gigs linked to apps: those two short words are glued together in contemporary culture.
Slang dictionary editor Jonathon Green groups the many early meanings of “gig” together with some hesitation, saying in an email, “What underlies them and seems to provide a link between them is, I suppose, some literal or figurative sense of performing or doing.” But “the lack of ascertainable etymology” makes any definitive statement about the early history of “gig” dicey. Michael Adams, author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry” and ‘In Praise of Profanity,” points out that when it comes to word meaning, “the paths we follow are twisty and overlapping.”
What is clear is that the musical sense of gig started popping up in the 1920s. Wall Street Journal language columnist Ben Zimmer has found uses as far back as 1921, when “gigging” appeared in music trade magazine Billboard. The earliest uses recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary are found in popular British music paper Melody Maker. A 1926 example shows the term could be an adjective, describing a “popular ‘gig’ band.” A 1927 use takes the usual form: “This seven-piece combination does many ‘gigs’ in S.E. London. . . ”
Appearing in influential publications such as Billboard and Melody Maker surely helped the term spread beyond the in-group of working musicians. Over a decade later, Melody Maker included a variation, “gigster,” that has made a comeback in recent times as the name of a platform for hiring freelancers for software development and design.
But “freelancer” has become a passé word in the gig economy, and “contingent worker” doesn’t sound much better. Both are seriously uncool. Adams points out that, “. . . there’s a certain aura of public relations surrounding ‘gig economy’ and the sort of gigging people are doing today. If you are driving for Uber, are you really cool like Chet Baker or Louis Armstrong? Do you have a gig — in the jazz club influenced sense — or are you a temp or an independent contractor? If it’s one of the last two, I can see why you’d rather gig in the gig economy.”
While “gig” itself implies a temporary or supplementary position, sometimes that status is highlighted with a prefix: as in “side-gig.” Such jobs are also called “side hustles,” which makes “gig” sound formal. Forbes has run two recent listicles that use this term, suggesting that side hustles are a primary focus for many: “3 Ways To Position Your Side Hustle Skills When Interviewing” and “6 Reasons You Need A Side Hustle.”
Whether you call your part-time job a gig, a side-gig, a side hustle, or something else, the common denominator is a lack of job security and benefits. For many, the freedom of side hustles is worth the risks. For others, a side hustle is simply better than no hustle at all.
Mark Peters is the Ideas language writer.