Fifteen years ago this week, Will Smith released “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit’ It” as the third single from his solo debut Big Willie Style. The upbeat track, with its “na na na”s and samples courtesy of Sister Sledge and the Bar-Kays, quickly became a hit; it topped the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks that spring. And the notion of getting “jiggy” captured the imaginations of listeners around the globe.
A few months after the single’s release, the late William Safire took on the notion of getting “jiggy” in an installment of his New York Times language column. Its topic: The “evanescent village of teen-age slang, land of fleeting meanings and laid-back superlatives.” “Jiggy” was used capriciously in an April 1998 Washington Post piece about MTV’s Wanna Be A VJ Contest; in the piece, “Veejay Day For 4,000 Jiggy Souls,” Ananda Lewis, then a VJ at MTV, said of the then-popular slang term, “This ‘jiggy’ thing is out of control.” Post writer Michael Colton helpfully clarified: “(For the record, jiggy means ‘cool, funky, kind of fly.’)” (It’s probably worth noting here that Lewis, who was on MTV until 2001, thought that “mangy” would be the Next Big Slang Thing.)
Safire, meanwhile, headed for the history books:
“It also has a sense of ‘nervous, crazed.’ The etymology is uncertain: in From Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, Clarence Major defines jig as ‘a dance’ and jigaboo, from the Bantu for ‘slavish,’ as a racist slur aimed at dark-skinned African-Americans. Jiggy could also be related to the verb “to jiggle.”
Thanks to the term being adapted by the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and King Crimsonnot to mention American culture’s tendency to exhaust words of any racial context they might have”jiggy” came to mean “party” more generically, with irony being laden on the term sometimes. Take this Geico ad, which used “jiggy” to illustrate the cluelessness of a not-very-adept MC:
But where is “jiggy” now?
“I have to admit “(getting) jiggy” had pretty much fallen off my radar,” said Boston Globe language columnist and Visual Thesaurus executive producer Ben Zimmer. “At the time of the song’s popularity, it seemed destined for immediate obsolescence, like so much pop-culture slang. (In fact, it was in the running for ‘Least Likely to Succeed’ in the American Dialect Society’s 1998 Word of the Year voting.) When the OED saw fit to include it in a 2004 update, they gave the definition for the relevant sense of ‘jiggy’ as ‘excitedly energetic or uninhibited, often in a sexual manner,’ with ‘to get jiggy’ coming to mean “‘to engage in sexual activity.’
“I was surprised to see that the sexual sense is still quite common, at least in UK tabloids,” said Zimmer. The Sun used the phrase twice on the same day last weekonce in a listicle counting down notable instances of public sex and once in a gossip item about Kim Kardashian; the UK version of the free paper Metro deployed it when talking about Beyoncé and Jay-Z; and The Sun (again!) used it in a story about people having sex at work.
“These are all uses of ‘get jiggy’ or ‘get jiggy with (someone),’ Zimmer noted. “When it’s used in the form ‘get jiggy with it’ (more consciously recalling the song), then the meaning tends to be ‘dance uninhibitedly’ or something similar.”
Recent uses in this sense include a gossip item about Tom Cruise’s kids dancing, a reference in the Irish Daily Mail to a contestant on the UK reality show Got To Dance, and a bit on Boise’s Best Bad Dancer, which is apparently a regular thing in Idaho.
“But for a lot of people, in the US at least, I’d imagine it could only be used as a humorous (typically sarcastic) callback to the song,” said Zimmer. Kind of like this snide (if self-aware) aside in an AV Club recap of Hawaii Five-0 : “You have to wonder: Is this CBS’ idea of how to connect with the kids today, by getting all jiggy with the social media? Yes, it’s easy and cheap and a little unfair to use outdated slang to make fun of CBS’ reputation as the geriatric network.”
That last one might have inspired a bit of wincing on the part of those of you who, like me, and like Ananda Lewis, and like so many of the VJ hopefuls, are closer to the CBS demographic than the younger-skewing bloc so strenuously chased by MTV these days. But take heart, fellow ’90s-rememberers: in 15 years, someone will probably have a field day with “YOLO.”