Monday, January 19, 2015

Japes, Jabs and Jibes

I am continuing my mid winter series on medieval insults surviving into the modern era.  Why?  Not sure really. Perhaps just because being cooped up indoor by the cold I have fewer distractions and actually get around to looking into the odd questions that occur to me.

For instance, after launching my inquiries with the marvelous word Jackanapes I got to wondering if it had some relationship with the word "Japes". And for that matter were Japes, Jibes and Jive all cousins of some etymological sort?

A Jape is a joke, jest, trick or deceit.  It can be used as either a noun or a verb, the latter being the act of joking, etc.  So of course it is exactly the sort of thing that a Jackanapes would do.  But Jape is not derived from Jackanapes.  Jape originates from Old French, either from  "japer" which means to howl or scream, or from "gaber" which meant to mock or deride.

I blush slightly to report that from its late 14th century origins the word Jape took the etymological low road for a the mid 15th century it had bawdy implications including the meaning "to have sex with".  The indispensable Online Etymology Dictionary whispers that it then "disappeared from polite usage" before being revived in its current sense of a witty insult.

Jibe can have a similar meaning, some sort of taunt, and is likely derived from the same root sources. But oddly it has an alternate meaning as well.  To "jibe" with something is to be in tune with it, or in agreement with it.  The OED suggests a variant of the word "chime" for its sense of being in harmony.  Perhaps the nautical use of a "jib sail" to help steer a ship contributed as well.

Jive was probably just a mistaken form of Jibe, but it has taken on an independent life.  In its journey through the linguistic world of early 20th century Black American culture it became a description for a style of lively jazz music, perhaps of a sort meant to trick the ear?  Since then it has returned to its base meaning of some sort of falsehood, and has dropped out of use entirely other than in retro forms of entertainment.  I recall the word still being in occasional used in the late 1970s, but keep in mind that I grew up about as far away, culturally, as one could from the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s.

Jab is the Scottish variant of a Middle English word "jobben" which meant to jab, thrust or peck. It is occasionally used to indicate an insult but something a bit more harmful than a jape or a jibe.  But I also note that term has oddly become specific for the process of giving immunizations.  My UK friends speak of "having their jabs".  Here in the States we would say we had "had our shots".

Culturally this means something but for the life of me I don't know what.

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