What Does the Jig Is Up Mean?

You’ve spent all day planning an elaborate prank on a friend when they appear in front of you and say, “The jig is up!” What do they mean? Read on to find out.

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What Does the Jig Is Up Mean?

As you might have guessed from the example above, the idiomatic English phrase the jig is up means that one’s trick or deception has been discovered, and thus won’t be allowed to continue, at least not according to plan. In other words, a person’s sneaky scheme has been thwarted. They’ve been caught! While it may be used to describe a harmless prank or even a nice surprise, it can also be used to describe a more serious dishonest action, such as a crime. You may also hear the phrase used as the jig is over.

Here are some example sentences using the expression the jig is up:

  • The jig is up, Sarah: I know you’re planning a surprise birthday party for me next week! Don’t worry, I’ll still act shocked when I walk in. 
  • The bank robber robbed four banks without getting caught. But he knew the jig was up when he saw the flashing lights in his rearview mirror after leaving the fifth bank. 
  • I thought I could get away with skipping a day of school, but the jig was up quickly when the principal called my mom’s cell phone to let her know I wasn’t there.
  • I ran into my friend while wearing a dress of hers I borrowed without her knowing. The first thing she said to me was, “The jig is up!”

The Origins of the Expression

When you hear the word jig, you probably think of it as an old term for a lively dance. Indeed, according to Merriam-Webster, it was first used in this manner in 1560. But around the same time, in the Elizabethan period (which included the mid-16th century, late 16th century, and early 17th century, 1558 until 1603 precisely), it was also used as a slang word for a trick or practical joke. And it’s from this usage that the idiom most likely came about and came to be used to mean that one’s trick is found out. That’s according to language investigators like the author Robert Hendrickson, who wrote The Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins. Other language experts suggest the phrase does in fact have to do with the ending of a dance and the lively music played during it, and that it got its origins there. Some language historians point to the first documented usage of the jig is over as 1777 and the jig is up as 1800.

Jig has also been used as a racial slur, and although, as shared above, the idiom the jig is up does not appear to have racist origins, there are reports that it was used for a time in the South to refer to the lynching of a Black person. For this reason, many people believe the expression should be avoided today. The game is up is a British phrase with the same meaning that can be used in place of the jig is up; you may also hear it as the game is over.

Understanding Idioms and Slang

The jig is up is an idiom. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. These words and phrases have a figurative rather than literal meaning. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:

You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.

If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.

Like the examples above, you’d be hard-pressed to arrive at the intended, figurative meaning of this expression if you tried to understand it literally. If you didn’t know that jig is an old slang term for a trick or jest, you might just think the phrase simply means a dance is over. If you thought that and were planning to sneak a snack into a movie theater, for example, and heard someone tell you “the jig is up,” you’d be pretty confused! But you now know it means that a deception has been foiled.

Again, in Elizabethan times, jig was a slang word for a trick or ruse. Slang is a very informal type of language. Typically, slang words and phrases are more often spoken than written, and they may be more commonly used by a particular group of people or in specific settings. In slang, words with one definition may be arbitrarily assigned a different definition. For example, tea is a slang word for gossip, and dough is a slang term for money.

Find many more examples of idioms and slang terms and phrases.

Summary

The jig is up is used to mean that a sneaky scheme or deceptive plan, whether a joke or something more serious, has been discovered and thus foiled. It’s another way of saying to someone that they’re no longer fooling anyone—that the perpetrator of an offense has been caught or found out. It’s thought to originate from the Elizabethan use of the word jig to mean a trick or ruse; jig is now an obsolete slang word in this regard. You may also hear the expression as the jig is over or as the game is up or the game is over.