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Whirligigs, Gigs, and Giggles

William Sayers
p. 203-208

Abstract

Nous proposons une étude étymologique des mots anglais whirligig, gig, et giggle. Quoiqu’ils ne forment pas un groupe sémantique en anglais moderne, ils remontent tous à la racine reconstruite indo-européenne *ĝhei-gh-, qui exprime diverses sortes de mouvement oscillatoire et répétitif. Cependant, aucun de ces mots n’est descendu en ligne directe du vieux germanique. Plutôt, deux avenues auraient conduit ce vocabulaire à l’anglais moyen and moderne: le vieux nordique du Danelaw britannique et le gaélique qui autrefois s’étendait à travers toute l’Écossse.

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  • 1 Promptorium parvulorum (1843: 525). As for the alternate name in English, top, the OED states tha (...)
  • 2 Palsgrave, Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse (1530: 288).

1In the following, whirligig is understood as initially referring to a wooden top, set spinning by a sharp pull on a string or a tap with a rod. We may imagine a classic shape as a cone with a recurving upper third. Whirligig would seem to have respectable English origins. It figures in a 1440 glossing context, along with the more general designation chyldys games, to explicate Latin giraculum (cf. Eng. gyration), this too with a semantic center in circular movement about the axis of an object.1 John Palsgrave’s French-English Dictionary from 1530, with its entry for pyrouette, explained “whirlygigge”, illustrates the different lexical path followed by French.2

  • 3 OED Online, s.v. whirligig.

2The OED’s etymological note on the word (with abbreviations expanded) reads as follows: “originally (and still to some extent dialectal), two words from 1. whirl- and whirly- + gig n.1”3 The latter element, gig, since it superficially appears to be a base noun to which a descriptor has been added, will first be pursued. Here, the dictionary’s etymological note is more than usually lethargic: “perhaps onomatopoetic; the identity of the word in all senses is very doubtful.” As the sound of the top is most unlikely to find a reiterated g- sound as a descriptor, onomatopoeia seems a feeble attempt at explaining origin. Admittedly, no Germanic root has been identified in English lexicography as a plausible source for gig. In the interest of thoroughness, it should also be stated that Brittonic (or later British), the language met by the Anglo-Saxon invaders, as its lexis may be reconstructed from Welsh, Cornish, and Breton, exhibits no term for such an object that with its name might have passed casually between children of the two communities.

3Having explored these avenues we go down one other, Old Norse as imported to the Danelaw, and will do so by returning to the deferred etymology of the English verb to whirl. The OED accepts a Norse source unquestioningly. In the following paraphrase of the dictionary entry, we may note in particular instances where the head or upper portion of an upright object is signaled. OED: Probably adapted from Old Norse hvirfla “to turn about, whirl” (Swedish virfla, Danish hvirle) related to ON hvirfill “circle, ring, especially crown of head, top, summit, pole of the heavens”. This derivation of hvirfill would entail a semantic shift from “that which turns” to “that about which there is turning”. Although ON-Ice. has many familiar figurative compounds, as tré + kött “wooden cat, mousetrap”, another simple wooden household contrivance, illustrates, we find attested no compound that would point toward a future English whirligig.

  • 4 Pokorny (1959-69: 421), s.v. *gĝhei-gh-, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997: 653), s.v. (...)
  • 5 Pokorny (1959-69) lists the simplex form gig “top” as found in early Danish but this claim is not (...)
  • 6 Emsheimer (1960), “Giga.”

4But with the whirl- element securely identified, reflexes of the Indo-European root *ĝhei-gh- may be explored.4 We have Norwegian dialect geiga “to veer off to the side”, ON-Ice. geigar “to take a wrong turn’, a more figurative usage in Icelandic geigr “harm, injury, bad turn” (as in an ill-split block of wood), New High German geigen “to move back and forth”, and a wide variety in various languages of rural applications related to trees and wooden instruments.5 Here we also situate Middle Low and Middle High German gīge, a bowed musical instrument. This early kind of fiddle was known in Scandinavia and Iceland as gígja. Norse evidence is inconclusive6 but the instrument has been compared to the European rebec and might also very suitably be set beside the gusle that accompanies South Slavic story-telling. The last-named has an elongated neck, an ample sound box, and one or two horsehide strings. With a flat side forward and covered in animal hide, it is held between the knees while the long neck supported on one thigh.

  • 7 Njáls saga (1954: Ch, 7ff.); called Mörðr gígja Sigmundarson in Landnámabók (1986: 349ff.).

5As noted, evidence for the Scandinavian gigja as musical instrument is scant, but gígja is attested as the epithet or byname of an Icelandic chieftain, Mörðr Sighvatsson, who figures in Landnámabók as one of the original settlers from the late ninth and early tenth centuries, and as the father-in-law of Hrútr, both key players in early events that wind the fateful drama of Njáls saga.7 Did the nickname reference a body type or a strident, peremptory voice? We cannot know.

6I suggest that it was both the bowing of the gigja and similarities in shape and function that generated the image for the top. We note the upright positioning of both, the comparable tapering upper part and full body. Since homonymity may have been undesirable and since the top was distinguished from the gigja by having to be thrown or whipped–the alternating bowing now replaced by a unidirectional rotary motion--we find an explanatory verbal element added. The Old Danish form taken to Britain may then be reconstructed as *hverfla-gigja “spinning top”. In the somewhat reduced English form, the verbal element has taken a typical English adjectival ending in -i/y.

  • 8 Euclid, The elements of geometrie (1570: 317).
  • 9 American Heritage Dictionary (1985); gig for a musical engagement is first attested from 1926.

7By analogy, the term whirligig found numerous other applications, one of which was for a cage for malefactors made to spin on a pivot and suspended over a watercourse. On occasion the bottom could be released. The early reduction of whirligig to gig is also noteworthy; it may be more exact to say that some extended applications prefer the shorter form. Just how firmly established the ideal image of the top was is illustrated in Billingsley’s 1570 treatise on Euclid where he writes of the cone “This solide of many is called Turbo, which to our purpose may be Englished a Top or Ghyg”.8 The over-elaborate spelling of the latter may be an effort to add a bit more dignity to the plaything. Other extended meanings as noted in OED seem unproblematic: a revolving set of feathers used as a bird lure; gig used of a light two-wheeled carriage or of a long, light ship’s boat, preferentially reserved for the captain, both characterized by easy, rapid deployment; used of young women given to flightiness or giddiness; fun, merriment (in high gig). North American English also has gigs of its own, e.g., a gig as a demerit point in the military or one night’s engagement for a band of musicians, etc., a nice closing of the circle with the original gigja.9

8The universal attractiveness of the top lies in its independent motion and appearance of an autonomous course. Modern descendants are simple pinwheels (circular arrays of blades on a stick) and wind-driven mobiles, suspended from the upper point of their axis, with various gradations in vanes or flutes to create impressions of vertical motion.

  • 10 American Heritage Dictionary (1985), s.v. giggle, similarly calls the formation “of imitative ori (...)

9Young women “in high gig”, however dated this may sound today, might have been thought to giggle from time to time. Is there any connection? At a minimum, the repeated sound and rotary movement might be thought to have some affinity. The OED has two separate entries for giggle as a verb: 1) as an obsolete, rarely attested word meaning “to turn rapidly”, and, in its more conventional meaning--which illustrates how in need of revision some entries are--2) “to laugh continuously in a manner not uproarious, but suggestive either of foolish levity or uncontrollable amusement”. The first form we readily recognize as related to the gigs reviewed above, completed, in a verbal reflex, by a common reduplicative or frequentive suffix, -le. In its commentary on etymology for the second giggle, the dictionary calls the formation “echoic” and, while not otherwise pronouncing on origin, cites the cognate, or at least synonymous, forms in Dutch giggelen, giegelen, gi(e)cheln, Middle High German gickeln, Modern German gichelen, gickelen, gichern, kichern.10 It notes other “imitative” words in English such as gaggle and cackle. OED also recalls Dr. Johnson’s remark about giggle: “It is retained in Scotland” but qualifies this somewhat by adding “but there is no scarcity of examples in English writers of the 18th c.”.

  • 11 Pokorny (1959-69: 352), s.v. gang-. This tentiative derivation is not supported in later works su (...)

10This prompts two observations. No loan from Dutch or German is claimed but, conversely, no examples are found in English before the early sixteenth century. Even if echoic, did giggle have more remote Germanic origins but somehow stay underground in popular speech between our first records of Old English and the Renaissance? Julius Pokorny’s Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (1959-69) offers a second opinion on the matter He traces the German and Dutch words noted above to a reconstructed root *gang- “to mock, scorn”.11 An Old English reflex of the root is ge-canc “mockery, scorn”. In both semantic and phonological terms, this is far from giggle. An expression of scorn may involve laughter, but not of this kind. On the other hand, IEW would derive giggle from the same root as gig, seen above as *ĝhei-gh-, tacitly suggesting a purely English development. With this explanation, not so much echoic as kinetic, we should have to see the reiterative pattern of sound as comparable to bowing, spinning and comparable movements. But, with this derivation, we return to the unresolved historical problem of the long underground existence of the verb in English.

  • 12 Most readily consulted in Brant (1874: I.63).
  • 13 Dictionary of the Irish Language (1913-76: fasc. G, col. 81).
  • 14 Other examples reviewed in Knott (1911). No effort at an exact translation is offered but Knott (...)
  • 15 Foclóir Gaedhlige agus Béarla (1927: 536), s.v. gíog.
  • 16 Cf. Welsh gwichiaf “squeal, squeak, chirp, creak”; Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (1950: 2, 1657).
  • 17 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary (1971: 494), s.v. gig.
  • 18 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary, 337.
  • 19 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary, 492; Sc. Gael. gig is also found with the meaning “squ (...)

11Dr. Johnson’s astute observation will provide the clue to resolve our problem. The first attested use of giggle in English is found in Alexander Barclay’s Shyp of Folys from 1509: “Some gygyll and lawgh without grauyte.”12 Barclay is judged to have been born a Scot, although educated at Oxford or Cambridge and later serving as a chaplain in Devon, where this work was composed. Scots was influenced in as yet unquantified ways by Scots Gaelic, with many borrowing into popular speech that find their way into print only in specific registers, as for example the lexis of vituperation and mockery that informs the Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedy. It is then to the Gaelic that was brought to Scotland from Ireland that we now look in order to find the antecedents of what will now be called Scots giggle. Old Irish had a term gigil that has been judged of “uncertain meaning”.13 Along with a more abstract form giglechus, it seems to refer to a tickling or irritating sensation or nervous excitement, and the verb giglim “I tickle” is elsewhere attested.14 Tickling might produce giggles, but a simple lexical derivation is harder to accept. More promising is the Modern Irish word gíog which means a squeak or “slender sound”.15 It is often found in negative phrases that might be compared to English “not a peep”. The active verb is gíogaim “scream, squeal” and the verbal noun is gíoglach “squealing, screaming”.16 This is paralleled in Scots Gaelic in the word giogaill “giggle”.17 Initial di- and gi- often alternate in the language and it is of interest to note diogail as “tickle”, while the simplex diog means “syllable, breath, the least effort of speech” and then fills a niche very much like Irish gíog.18 In fact, we even find in Scots Gaelic the form gig with the meaning “tickling”.19 But rather than seeing tickling and giggling connected causally, it seem more accurate to imagine the giggle as a kind of tickle in the throat, that is, not caused by some playful external agent.

  • 20 The OED lists examples of giggle in English letters after the first Scottish examples. The Englis (...)

12English giggle is then best understood as a loan from Scots Gaelic into Scots with the verbal form aligning itself with other reiterative English verbs such as cackle, gaggle.20 Whirligig, gig and giggle are all ultimately traceable to the reconstructed IE root *ĝhei-gh- “yawn, gape’”. None, however, emerged in simple linear fashion from Germanic into Old English. Rather, two avenues will have brought this vocabulary to English: the Old Norse of the Danelaw and the Gaelic that once spanned all of Scotland. The semantics of these and related words, as well as the the complex relationship among various meanings, in the development of which analogy plays a central role, would reward an expanded study.

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Bibliography

American Heritage Dictionary. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1985.

Apollonius of Tyre. The Old English Apollonius of Tyre. Peter Goolden, ed. Oxford: Clarendon, 1958.

Brant, Sebastian. The Ship of Fools. Alexander Barclay, trans. 2 vols. Edinburgh: W. Paterson, 1874.

Dictionary of the Irish Language. E. G. Quin, ed. Dublin: Royal Irish Academy, 1913-76.

Emsheimer, Ernst. “Giga,” Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltiden. Malmö: Allheims, 1960. Vol. 5, col. 297.

Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture. J. P. Mallory and Douglas Q. Adams, ed. London and Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1997.

The English Dialect Dictionary. Joseph Wright, ed. London: H. Froude, 1898-1905.

Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands. Marlies Philippa, ed. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004.

Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache. Friederich Kluge and Elmar Seebold, eds. 24th ed. Berlin and New York: de Gruyter, 2002.

Euclid. The elements of geometrie of the most auncient philosopher Euclide of Megara. H. Billingsley, trans. London: Iohn Daye, 1570.

Foclóir Gaedhlige agus Béarla: An Irish-English Dictionary. P. S. Dinneen, comp. Dublin: Irish Texts Society, 1927.

Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru. R. J. Thomas et al., eds. Caerdydd: Gwasg Prifysgol Cymru, 1950-2002.

The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary. Edward Dwelly, comp. 7th ed. Glasgow: Gairm Publications, 1971.

Knott, E[leanor]. “Address to David O’Keefe (Ériu IV. pp. 209-232): Notes and Corrections,” Ériu 5 (1911): 70-71.

Landnámabók. Jakob Benediktsson, ed. Íslenzk fornrit 1. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1986.

LIV Lexikon der indogermanischen Verben: die Wurzeln und ihre Primärstammbildungen. 2nd ed. Helmut Rix and Martin Kümmel, ed. Wiesbaden: Reichert, 2001.

Njáls saga. Einar Ól. Sveinsson, ed. Íslenzk fornrit 12. Reykjavík: Hið íslenzka fornritafélag, 1954.

The Oxford English Dictionary. New Edition. OED Online, web.

Palsgrave, Jehan. Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse. London: Richard Pynon, 1530.

Pokorny, Julius. Indo-germanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch. 2 vols. Bern: A. Francke, 1959-69.

Promptorium parvulorum. Albert Way, ed. 3 vols. London: Camden Society, 1843.

Sayers, William. “Þoðer and top in the Old English Apollonius of Tyre.” Notes and Queries 56 (2009), 12-14.

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Notes

1 Promptorium parvulorum (1843: 525). As for the alternate name in English, top, the OED states that it is “a word of difficult history”; OED, s.v. top n.2. The first attestation given there is in the Old English Apollonius of Tyre (ca. 1060): “Mid gelæredre handa he swang þone top mid swa micelre swiftnesse, þæt þam cynge wæs gfeþuht swilce he of ylde to iuguðe gewænd wære”; The Old English Apollonius of Tyre (1958: 20). The object is earlier called þoðer “ball’. See Sayers (2009).

2 Palsgrave, Lesclarcissement de la langue françoyse (1530: 288).

3 OED Online, s.v. whirligig.

4 Pokorny (1959-69: 421), s.v. *gĝhei-gh-, Encyclopedia of Indo-European Culture (1997: 653), s.v. ĝh(h1)ii-eha-. The unextended forms, *ĝhe-, etc., have their semantic focus on notions of gaping, yawning, and are thus applicable to vocalizations; see further below.

5 Pokorny (1959-69) lists the simplex form gig “top” as found in early Danish but this claim is not borne out in current Danish lexicographical works, which list only the boat and carriage significations and see these as loans from English.

6 Emsheimer (1960), “Giga.”

7 Njáls saga (1954: Ch, 7ff.); called Mörðr gígja Sigmundarson in Landnámabók (1986: 349ff.).

8 Euclid, The elements of geometrie (1570: 317).

9 American Heritage Dictionary (1985); gig for a musical engagement is first attested from 1926.

10 American Heritage Dictionary (1985), s.v. giggle, similarly calls the formation “of imitative origin”. Onomatopoetic origins are also claim for Du. giechelen and Germ. kichern in authoritative modern works, Etymologisch woordenboek van het Nederlands (2004) and Etymologisches Wörterbuch der deutschen Sprache (2002), respectively. See further below.

11 Pokorny (1959-69: 352), s.v. gang-. This tentiative derivation is not supported in later works such as LIV (2001).

12 Most readily consulted in Brant (1874: I.63).

13 Dictionary of the Irish Language (1913-76: fasc. G, col. 81).

14 Other examples reviewed in Knott (1911). No effort at an exact translation is offered but Knott notes Windisch’s translation “kitzeln”. As we shall see below, we are best advised to understand giglim as “to experience a tickling sensation” rather than “to tickle” in a transitive sense.

15 Foclóir Gaedhlige agus Béarla (1927: 536), s.v. gíog.

16 Cf. Welsh gwichiaf “squeal, squeak, chirp, creak”; Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (1950: 2, 1657).

17 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary (1971: 494), s.v. gig.

18 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary, 337.

19 The Illustrated Gaelic‑English Dictionary, 492; Sc. Gael. gig is also found with the meaning “squeak”.

20 The OED lists examples of giggle in English letters after the first Scottish examples. The English Dialect Dictionary (1898-1905: 2, 607), lists gig as a northernism meaning “laugh, giggle; creak”. The meaning “trick, ingenious device” shows the influence of jig, as giggle “jog or shake about, stand unevenly” does that of jiggle.

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References

Bibliographical reference

William Sayers, « Whirligigs, Gigs, and Giggles », Anglophonia/Sigma, 15 (30) | 2011, 203-208.

Electronic reference

William Sayers, « Whirligigs, Gigs, and Giggles », Anglophonia/Sigma [Online], 15 (30) | 2011, Online since 20 April 2015, connection on 16 October 2017. URL : http://anglophonia.revues.org/444 ; DOI : 10.4000/anglophonia.444

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About the author

William Sayers

Cornell University.

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Anglophonia – French Journal of English Linguistics est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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