Gybe or Jibe? Where did the term originate?

As if sailing terminology wasn’t hard enough sailors can’t even agree to a universal spelling of the second most common sailing maneuver. Is it gybe or jibe (sometimes misspelled as “jive”)? There is no difference between the definitions, just a difference in spelling.

 

It’s called a jibe in US English and a gybe in UK English. Being British I feel it my duty to outline why the latter should be the universal spelling.

 

The origin of the word seems to be neither British or American. It comes from the Dutch word “gijben” (now “gijpen”). Ironically (since we are looking at the origin of the word), this translates as “of obscure origin”. I struggle to think how this came to mean to gybe. I can only think that one uninitiated to gybing that gets hit by a swinging boom may complain that it came out of nowhere!

 

The term “gijben” originated in the 17th Century. It was first recorded 1685 – 95. This was after the time the Dutch had left America so it’s likely it reached British ears before American ones. Therefore, “gybe” likely comes before “jibe”. Due to British influence in America in the 18th century (especially its nautical influence), it’s likely the term “jibe” comes from the English “gybe” rather than directly from the Dutch “gijben”. Dictionary.com supports this thesis, stating that “jibe” is a “variant of gybe”.  Since many sailors at the time were illiterate,  it’s understandable how “gybe” became “jibe”.

 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how we spell it. It would just be less confusing if we agreed on a universal spelling. Alas, I don’t see this happening anytime soon.

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