Jiving with the Cheshire cat

I’ve a couple of new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First, Does a jive jibe with a gibe? attempts to disentangle a knotty congregation of homophones and near-homophones (including gybe, not mentioned in the title), and to explain what lies behind their frequent confusion:

Another common use of the verb jibe is to indicate agreement: ‘if two things jibe, they agree or contain similar information’. Often followed by with, it’s synonymous with match or tally. If you’re familiar with this usage, you might say my description jibes with your understanding of it. Sometimes jive or gibe are used instead, but neither spelling is standard here.

The (mis)use of jive for jibe ‘agree, correspond’ is common, perhaps motivated by metaphor: the idea of two things jiving (i.e., swing-dancing) together is a coherent analogy for harmony. The strong phonetic likeness also contributes to the confusion, with just the similar-sounding bilabial /b/ and labiodental /v/ differentiating a minimal pair.

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john tenniel cheshire cat grinning in alice's adventures in wonderlandNext is my post Why do we ‘grin like a Cheshire cat’?, on the obscure origins of this popular phrase. It continues my series for Macmillan on the language of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll, a book the publisher introduced to the world 150 years ago:

That the phrase’s origin is unknown has led to some interesting speculation. Martin Gardner, in The Annotated Alice, notes two possibilities: that it derives from grinning lions painted on the signs of inns in Cheshire – where Carroll grew up – or that it comes from a tradition of Cheshire cheeses being moulded into the shape of grinning cats, or marked that way.

Graeme Donald’s Dictionary of Modern Phrase finds the latter hypothesis ‘suspect’ because of the ‘very crumbly texture’ of the cheese in question. He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

I note a couple of other possibilities and also briefly discuss the Cat’s mystique in Carroll’s story. Older posts can be read in my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

9 Responses to Jiving with the Cheshire cat

  1. kim881 says:

    Nice post, Stan. I love words and their origins.

  2. astraya says:

    In Jasper Fforde’s ‘Thursday Next’ series, the Cheshire cat is renamed at the ‘Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat’.

  3. languagehat says:

    He cites Eric Partridge’s suggestion that Cheshire here is ‘a corruption of cheeser’, but doesn’t think cats like cheese enough to make this etymology likely.

    What?! Has he ever known any cats? Our cat Pushkin not only likes cheese, he demands it; not only that, he is a connoisseur. He puts up with the bits of cheddar and provolone we give him at lunch, but he was really in heaven when a family friend used to work at a cheese counter at an upscale food store in the Berkshires and would give us samples of the fancy stuff — I remember he was particularly fond of Abbaye de Belloc, and I have had to explain to him that it’s far too expensive for us to buy on our own hook.

    That said, I think “cheeser cat” is a ridiculous attempt at an explanation, and I don’t think there’s any way of knowing what Carroll had in mind.

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