Jibe Talking

Confusion over jibe, jive, gibe, and gybe

“Alas, poore Yorick,” Shakespeare wrote. “Where be your gibes now?” Or, depending on your edition of Hamlet, perhaps he wrote “Where be your jibes now?”

But he most certainly did not write “Where be your jives now?”

Come with us as we gybe our way through four words that sound so similar that they often get mixed up. And yes, as is the case with “jury-rig” and “jerry-rig,” sailing is involved. Put on your life vest: This is not going to be easy.

“Gibe” can be both a noun or verb. It can also be spelled “jibe,” but that one is reserved mostly for verbs. “Jibe” can be spelled “gybe,” but “gybe” can’t be spelled “gibe.” And “jive” is sometimes mistaken for “jibe,” but shouldn’t be.

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As Shakespeare used it, “jibe” or “gibe” is a noun meaning “a jeer or a taunt,” as in “The kids on the playground threw gibes at the geek.” It can also be a verb. Most dictionaries prefer the “gibe” spelling, and for good reason: “Jibe” is generally used as a verb (with “with”) to mean “to be in harmony, agreement, or accord,” as in “Their view of the geek jibed with his teachers’ views.” So here’s the first key to remembering the difference: If you want a noun, or a verb not followed by “with,” you probably want “gibe.”

It doesn’t help that the Oxford English Dictionary uses “jibe” and “gibe” interchangeably, or that Webster’s New World College Dictionary calls the harmony use of “jibe” “informal.” But take our word for it: If you want to taunt somebody, give them a G for “gibe.” If things are in harmony, they’re jelling, as in “jibe.”

WNW prefers you to use “jibe” as a sailing term for when a boom shifts from one side of a boat to the other while sailing before the wind. In other words, a “jibe” is a type of “tack.” If you’re British, wanting to appear that way, or belong to certain yacht clubs, you’ll spell that sailing tact as “gybe.” Since most American journalists are none of the above, alarm bells should go off if you ever see the “y” spelling outside of sailing contexts.

Now let’s move on to “jive,” which is misused enough when “jibe” is meant that it has reached Stage 2 on the Language-Change Index in Garner’s Modern American Usage, meaning it’s still wrong but lots of people use it. “Jive,” which traces to the Roaring Twenties, started as another word for jazz or swing music, but moved to street talk for “you’re joshing me” or even stronger, “you’re deceiving me.” (That’s jive talk, man. He’s no geek; he’s a rapper.”) “Jive” and “gibe” are closer in meaning than are “jive” and “jibe.”

A recap: “Gibe” (noun and verb) is the preferred way to hurl taunts. If you’re sailing, you can “jibe” or “gybe.” “Jibe” is preferred as a verb meaning “to agree” or “be in harmony with,” and “with” is the key word to accompany “jibe.” And if you are in harmony, that’s no “jive.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl. Tags: , , , , ,