[Ads-l] 'gig' = (non-show-business) engagement, 1952

Geoffrey Nunberg nunberg at ISCHOOL.BERKELEY.EDU
Sun Oct 25 18:09:39 UTC 2015

The OED gives a 1964 cite from J.H. Clarke’s Harlem as the earliest instance of the “also transf. and attrib.” use of ‘gig’ ("An engagement for a musician or musicians playing jazz, dance-music, etc.; spec. a ‘one-night stand’). "Pa—knockin' hisself out on a mail-handler gig at the Post Office where the pay is so lousy he's gotta work a part-time gig.” That cite should really be 1963, but there’s a much earlier instance in Kerouac’s piece  "The Railroad Earth,” written in 1952-53 but published in the collection The Lonesome Traveler, 1960. Kerouac describes working as a railroad brakeman in San Jose: 

It’s the chief dispatcher calling from 4th and Townsend in the Sad Frisco, “Keroowayyy? It’s deadhead on 112 to San Jose for a drag east with Conductor Degnan got that?”…“All you do is get ups and you already done made how many dollars? Anyways in your sleep and put on your gig clothes and cut out and take a little bus and go down to the San Jose yard office down by the aiprort and the engines are being lined up and numbered out there… You go down and find your conductor who’ll just be some old baggy-pants circus comedian with a turned-up hat brim…

This is the sense that figures now in “the gig economy” etc., which Ben discussed in his WSJ piece. It corroborates my sense that this was one of the musicians’ terms brought into the mainstream by the hipsters and beats, along with ‘riff’, ‘cool’, and my favorite, the late, lamented “Solid!”


PS. “The Sad Frisco” seems to be Kerouac’s own — it appears in The Subterraneans, too. 

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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