linguistics and lexicography Love English

Does a jive jibe with a gibe?

© GETTYSome words seem almost designed for confusion. Ronald Pineda told me on Twitter that he sees jive, jibe and gibe used interchangeably, and suggested I disentangle them. So I will, but first I should say that certain variations and overlaps in their usage are legitimate, while others are generally considered non-standard or incorrect.

The usual meaning of gibe is a remark ‘intended to hurt someone or to make them feel stupid’. Gybe is a variant spelling. There is considerable semantic overlap with jibe: ‘a comment that is intended to annoy or offend someone’ – indeed, some dictionaries consider gibe simply a variant spelling of jibe. It’s often modified by cheap: in politics someone might accuse a rival of ‘making cheap jibes’. Jibe also functions as a verb meaning to make such a comment. Gibe, gybe and jibe are all pronounced the same: /dʒaɪb/.



Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair. In a further complication, gybe in nautical contexts means to shift a sail from one side of a boat to the other – and it’s normally spelled jibe in US English.

Jive is more different from jibe and gibe than they are from each other. It normally refers to a kind of swing music or the associated dance; it’s also a slang term for jazz or hipster lingo, and for deceptive or glib talk. There are related verb uses. Close to the ‘deceptive/glib talk’ sense is its use to mean something like tease or taunt. This neighbours on jibe/gibe ‘hurtful or offensive remark’, increasing the potential for confusion.

If you’re about to use any of these terms in writing and are not fully sure it’s correct, it’s a good idea to look it up before committing yourself to print – and bear in mind that informal contexts may allow more leeway. You could also create a mnemonic to help keep them distinct: the v in jive could be dancing arms, while the b in jibe could stand for buddies.

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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