It’s time to straighten out the straits and sort the jives from the jibes. This is not as easy as it might sound.
The confusion over straight and strait pops up frequently. In a June 16 article, actor Emily Blunt sang the praises of improvisation. “So often you’re so structured,” she said, “and it’s quite straight-jacketing.”
Some dictionaries offer straightjacket as an alternative to straitjacket, but careful writers should tread carefully. Straightjacket is born of the kind of free association that leads people to write of honing in a target instead of (correctly) homing in on a target. Straight and strait sound alike. There the similarity ends.
The strait in straitjacket means narrow or tight. The adjective entered English in the late 1200s, and derived by way of Old French from the Latin strictus, drawn tight, past participle of stringere, to bind. The noun followed in the 1300s, referring to a narrow, confined space. Narrow waterways have been called straits since the 1300s, and straits as a metaphor for distress – dire or desperate straits – have been with us since the 1500s.
Straitlaced has existed in one form or another since the 1400s, and, once again, the image is of laces pulled tight or, metaphorically, of someone who is rigid and unbending, as if constricted by a tightly laced corset.
Again, some dictionaries say the word may be spelled straight-laced. In fact, straight as an alternative spelling for strait – along with streighte and strayte – dates back to the beginning. But straitlaced remains the main, accepted spelling.
Straight, in its chief sense of proceeding in one direction without curving or swerving, first appeared in Middle English as the past form of stretch. The idea was that something stretched directly between two points had no bends.
One might therefore assume that the straight and narrow, the path taken by the righteous, is a path that proceeds without turning. But the expression was born of a straight-strait mistake.
The Bible’s Matthew 7:14 says, “Because strait is the gate, and narrow is the way which leadeth unto life, and few there be that find it.” In 1842, J.E. Leeson borrowed the image for his book Hymns and Scenes of Childhood, but mistook the strait (narrow) gate for a straight one, and created the phrase “the straight and narrow” to suggest moral rectitude. “Suffer not my steps to stray/ From the straight and narrow way,” he wrote.
The battle between jibe and jive is similarly fraught. Since at least 1813, jibe has meant to accord or agree with. The figures jibe (they add up), and his account jibes with mine (our stories match). No one knows where jibe comes from, and, to complicate matters, the word sounds the same as gibe, a needling insult, and gybe, a sailing term. Gibe and gybe are both sometimes spelled jibe.
Jive didn’t show up until the late 1920s, and first referred to deception or bafflegab (Don’t Jive Me was the name of a 1928 Louis Armstrong song). In the 1930s it began referring to an energetic style of dance. Its first citation in the sense of jibe dates from a 1943 issue of American Speech: “Doesn’t jive, doesn’t make sense.”
Thus, an article this month on declining television viewership said, “Those alarming numbers didn’t jive with other indications of viewership.” I wondered why numbers would be dancing freely with other indications.
Some dictionaries acknowledge the use of jive for agree, but few are happy about it. In the 2009 edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage, Bryan A. Garner writes that “some writers misuse jive for jibe,” and places the misuse at Stage 2 on his “language-change index.” That means the word is used by “a significant fraction of the language community but remains unacceptable in standard usage.”
That jibes with my own sentiments. No jive.