TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has chosen his 2015 word-of-the-year, and the word is gig. The word began as jazz musician slang and now describes an aspect of the new economy.
GEOFF NUNBERG, BYLINE: The most obvious candidates for word of the year are the labels of the year's big stories - new words like microaggression or resurgent ones like refugee. But sometimes a big theme is captured in more subtle ways. So for my word of the year, I offer you the revival of gig as the name for a new economic order. It's the last chapter in the life of a little word that has tracked the rise and fall of the great American job. Gig goes back more than a century as musician slang for a date or engagement. Nobody's sure where it originally came from, though there are lots of imaginative theories out there. But the word didn't have any particular glamour until the 1950s, when the hipsters and the beats adapted it to mean any job you took to keep body and soul together while your real life was elsewhere. The earliest example I found is from a 1952 piece by Jack Kerouac, talking about his gig as a part-time brakeman for the Southern Pacific Railroad in San Jose. For the hipsters, calling a job a gig was saying that it didn't define you. A gig was a commitment you felt free to walk away from as soon as you had $50 in your pocket. That was the era when the real job was enjoying its moment in the American sun thanks to New Deal programs, strong unions and the post-war boom. So to turn away from that security and comfort in search of something more meaningful seemed a daring and romantic gesture. When you read Kerouac, it still does. Gig was a natural for the hippies who succeeded the hipsters and who made the avoidance of regular work a condition of tribal membership. But the word's more subversive overtones receded along with a counterculture. In recent decades, gig has become just a hip term for any kind of temporary job or stint with the implication that you're not particularly invested in it. I think of the barista or bookstore clerk who responds to my questions with a look that says hey man, it's a gig. I don't really do this. That tone of insouciance has made the gig economy the predominant name for what's being touted as the industrial revolution of our times. The lifetime job is history, we're told, a victim of technology and the logic of the market. Instead, careers will be a patchwork of temporary projects and assignments with the help of apps and platforms with perky names like Fancy Hands, Upwork and TaskRabbit. It's been called the on-demand economy, the 1099 economy, the peer-to-peer economy and freelance nation. But over the past year, investors, the business media and politicians seem to have settled on the gig economy. It strikes just the right jaunty, carefree note. The Financial Times explains that in the future, work will be less secure but lots more exciting. We can make our own schedule and hours, pick the projects that interest us, work from anywhere and try our hands at different trades. The buzzwords fly thick and fast here - we'll be solopreneurs (ph) and free-range humans with portfolio careers. As the head of a freelancer's organization puts it, we're no longer just lawyers or photographers or writers. Instead, we're part-time lawyers, cum amateur photographers who write on the side. That's the image that phrases like the gig economy and freelance nation bring to mind, an economy populated by professionals and creatives, usually single millennials, people who may be willing to trade some security for the opportunity to take off a month or two to visit Patagonia. But that language doesn't get at most of the people who are cut loose in the new economy and who aren't reveling in the independence it gives them, the low-paid temps and contingent workers that some people call the precariat. When you hear freelancer, you don't think of people cobbling together a livelihood cleaning apartments, delivering groceries and doing other people's laundry. And not many of those people think of themselves as having gigs. Unless you're a bass player, calling a god job a gig is a luxury reserved for people who can pretend they don't need one. There's a kind of semantic shell game going on here as the promoters of the new economy trade on the whisper of romance that still clings to gig. For the hipsters and the beats, the word evoked a fantasy of freedom and escape from the soul-deadening routine of a permanent job. If you have a long cultural memory, it's a bit odd to hear the extravagant praise of gig life coming from the investors and consultants who are hyping the new economic order. It's as if the shade of Kerouac were still haunting the place that's now called Silicon Valley, where he worked as a brakeman 65 years ago. But their logic sounds impeccable. If gig suggests the independence you get when you're not tied down to a steady lifetime job, then just think of the freedom we'll all enjoy when the traditional job is consigned to the scrapheap of history and the economy is just gigs all the way down. But the idea of a gig is only alluring if you know you can hit the road when it gets joyless. Otherwise, it's just an old word for a job you can't count on having tomorrow.
GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the University of California Berkeley. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR...
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "GOODFELLAS")
RAY LIOTTA: (As Henry Hill) To me, being a gangster was better than being president of the United States.
GROSS: That's Ray Liotta in Martin Scorsese's film "Goodfellas." Tomorrow, Liotta will talk with us about his life and his movies and how he started off playing a nice guy on a soap opera but became known for playing tough guys. Liotta co-stars as a corrupt police detective in the new NBC series "Shades Of Blue." I hope you'll join us.
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