Jive vs. Jibe: How to Choose the Right Word

These verbs may sound alike, but their meanings are different

jive dancing
A young dancer leaps into the air during a "jive" at the Jazz Band Ball in Hammersmith Palais, London, in 1951.

George Douglas/Getty Images

Jibe and jive are similar-sounding words, but their meanings are quite different. Jibe is the older version, probably from Dutch or Old English, and meaning, most of the time, "agree with." Jive, on the other hand (probably), was coined by jazz musicians in the 1920s, and it means a wide variety of things, but most prominently "untrustworthy."

How to Jive

Jive has an enormous versatility in American speech.

As a noun, jive means a dance performed to swing or jazz music, but it also means insincere pretentious talk, or words meant to flatter or deceive. As an adjective, jive means "worthless, phony, contrived." 

When used in the phrase "jive turkey," jive is an intensifier/modifier that increases the generally insulting cast of the word "turkey" (a dud, loser, or inept person) to "a lying dud, loser, or inept person." When jive is used to modify "jive language," however, it admiringly refers to the inventive and highly stylized language of jazz music and musicians.

The etymology of jive is obscure. It first shows up in written form in the 1920s, but that doesn't mean it wasn't in use much earlier. The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests that it might have an African origin, that there is a West African Wolof word "jev" or "jeu" that means to talk about someone absent in a disparaging manner.

It may also be that jive is a direct borrow of "jibe," a subtle and funny twist on its original meaning.

How to Jibe

Jibe, on the other hand, has fewer meanings. As a verb, most of the time it means "to agree," but as a noun, it is a variant spelling of "gibe," meaning "insult." And most of the time, jibe is paired with "not"—in other words, in the vernacular, you would not likely say "our ideas jibe," but you might say, "our ideas don't seem to jibe."

Jibe probably derives from the Old English or Dutch word "gyb," which had and still has a specific meaning in sailing: to move back and forth and adjust to changing conditions of water and wind. It is also an alternative spelling of the word "gibe," which is an aggressive, rude, or insulting remark.

Sounds and Meanings

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary says that the confusion between jive and jibe began to occur almost immediately after jive entered the American lexicon in the late 1920s. After all, the two words are pronounced only a tiny bit differently: in spoken language, the vowel sound of the word jive lasts a little longer. Jibe ends with a b, which requires you to bounce your lips together, stopping the long l sound with a little puff of air.

On the other hand, jive ends in a v sound, which requires you to set your teeth gently on your lower lip but not necessarily ending the sound of the I. One possible word origin for jive and jibe, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is "chime," which could do for both.

Examples

The best way to remember the differences between jive and jibe is the context. In particular, jive is either vernacular for a type of dancing, or an accusation of insincerity, while jibe is to either agree or pick on someone.

  • Our notions of the proper form of dancing at the prom do not jibe—you like country swing two-step, I like to jive.
  • Cathy could only bear Steven's jibes in her ear for so long before she danced away from the jive turkey.
  • That politician speaks nothing but jive these days—always jibing his opinions depending on what the crowd wants to hear.

Roget's Thesaurus suggests that the verb form of "jive" is most similar to "banter" and that of "jibe" is to "change course." Both of those things are appropriate on the dance floor.

Sources

Garg, Anu. "Jive." A Word A Day with Anu Garg. June 2009.

McRae, Rick. "'What Is Hip?' And Other Inquiries in Jazz Slang Lexicography." Notes 57.3 (2001): 574–84. Print.

"Jive: Jazz Slang." All About Jazz. March 4, 2004. Web.

"Jibe" and "Jive." Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Web.

"Jibe" and "Jive." Online Etymology Dictionary. Web.

"Jibe" and "Jive." Oxford Living Dictionaries. Web.

Stevens, Heidi. "Spell-Checker Busters." Chicago Tribune. November 10, 2010.