Luke Taylor

Grammar Grater®

with Luke Taylor


Episode 7: Jive Talking

An enduring image of summer in Minneapolis is the presence of sailboats on Lake Harriet and Lake Calhoun. Out in open water, ivory-white wedges cut their courses as crews hike over gunwales to counterbalance the weight of the wind. It's a beautiful sight — not to mention a lot of fun for those who are aboard the boats.

But seeing those boats got me thinking about sailing terms that we use in everyday conversation. It's not surprising that sailing terms populate the English language, given Great Britain's seafaring pedigree. Jibe and tack are two very popular and useful words that come from sailing, and they often get confused with a couple words that sound a lot like them.

The first word, jibe, can also be spelled gybe. A jibe is a sailing move where you change course (when the wind is coming from behind the boat) and the boom swings across the hull. It takes awareness and cooperation to pull off a jibe, even in a small boat with just two people. In common parlance, the word jibe means to agree or be in accord. For example, "Does this idea jibe with your plans?"

Sometimes jibe gets confused with jive, which is a slang word that refers to swing music and dancing, to hipster jargon or to foolish talk, as in, "Don't talk jive to me." Use of this word may also mean that it's 1978. Regardless, when things line up or people agree, they jibe, not jive.

The other sailing term—tack—often gets confused with the word tact. In sailing, a tack is a course change into the wind. In conversation, "to take a different tack" means to try a new approach or direction. Given the sailing definition of tack, it's an appropriate metaphor.

Sometimes people will accidentally say, "Let's try a different tact," but tact refers to skill in dealing with others or to the ability to say and do the right thing. I'm hoping everybody's already using tact. The word that's needed is tack.

And that's no jive.

Sources: Oxford Dictionary of Current English

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