Tools, Jigs, and Fixtures

I went through a little research tangent a few months ago regarding precise definitions of tools, jigs, and fixtures. As near as I can nail it down, a tool is the device that actually cuts, abrades, splits, or simply impacts the material at hand. A fixture, according to machinist’s encyclopedias from the late 19th century forward, is a device that holds the material while it is being subjected to tools. Jig is a much more difficult term to nail down, from the standpoint of both usage and etymology.

Matthew Crawford, in The World Beyond Your Head, uses jig in an interesting way—when a cook lays out his tools and ingredients in a precise spatial array, he is creating a “jig” for the particular task he is performing. Crawford’s usage seems intuitively correct, although reading and internalizing David Pye’s discussion of “self-jigging” tools in his infamous elaboration of the workmanships of risk and certainty makes Crawford’s unorthodox usage an interesting twist, moving the term jig beyond the use of tools. Just what does jig mean precisely?


Scalia’s re-introduction of “jiggery pokery” into the popular lexicon highlights the dual nature (and root) of the term. Time Magazine’s etymology doesn’t seem completely right:

Editors at the Oxford English Dictionary traced this particular phrase back to the Scottish word jouk, which means to skillfully twist one’s body to avoid a blow—to manipulate oneself like an acrobat. Scalia, in this case, insinuates that his colleagues bend themselves and dissemble in order to work around the truth by misinterpreting words of the law.

Among the Scots, the word jouk led to the notion of joukery or jookery to describe underhanded dealing or trickery. Pawky is another Scottish word, meaning artfully shrewd. A pawk, on its own, is a trick. And by 1686, some inventive Scottish speakers had combined the words in the phrase joukery-pawkery, which they used to refer to clever trickery or slight of hand.

One key feature of this etymology is that movement is featured, i.e. “twisting to avoid a blow.” This would mesh genetically with the received usage of “jig” as a method for guiding a tool, or in Crawford’s usage, guiding action through a placement that facilitates specific movements. What’s missing in this definition though, is that the English had a completely different  usage (and spelling) for “joak.” And, what seems more connected to the matter at hand, a “jig” is also a dance— a rhythmic movement up and down, which connects with the English usage of joak in a rather suggestive way.

Joak, in England and Wales at least, meant female pubic hair. There were many popular bawdy songs like “The Black Joak” from the 17th and 18th century. Joak is also spelled “joke,” as in “The Nut Brown Joke”:

No Magick has so mighty a Force,
Both Person and Heart, for Better and Worse,
In a Circle to lock,
As her Nut-brown Joke
Where Ages are lost,
And Pleasures engrost,
Where Soul and Sense their Paradise find.

Jokes of many colors were popularized in song, a fact that I find quite amusing. Jig, as reported by other online etymologies has a similarly checkered past:

From 1580s as the music for such a dance. The extended sense “piece of sport, trick” (1590s), survives mainly in the phrase the jig is up (first attested 1777 as the jig is over). As a generic word for handy devices or contrivances from 1875, earlier jigger (1726). Other senses seem to be influenced by jog, and the syllable forms the basis of colloquial words such as jiggalorum “a trifle” (1610s), jigamoree “something unknown” (1844), also jiggobob(1620s), jiggumbob (1610s); and compare jigger (n.). “As with other familiar words of homely aspect, the senses are more or less involved and inconstant” [Century Dictionary].

I wasn’t able to confirm that the road that leads out of a mine was also once called a “jig” though I found reference to that a few places, and I also found it interesting that the most extensive discussion of mechanical jigs in the 19th century referred to mining jigs, which were devices that directed the ore over a screen and moved it mechanically to separate material by size. Jokes aside, in every case definitions of jig seem to be connected to movement of one kind or another, lascivious or not.

To this day, prostitutes turn tricks, so the term jig seems to be caught up in a universe of terms that are layered in meanings that may or may not be relevant to the usage at hand. From a craft standpoint, it seems suffice to say that a jig is a device that guides or facilitates the motion of a tool. That’s the best I can come up with, after all that (admittedly fun) research.

For some reason, Scalia’s death reminded me of it all, so I felt compelled to write it down.

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