origin of ‘gigolo’



a young man paid or financially supported by a woman, typically an older woman, to be her escort or lover




In English, gigolo originally denoted a professional male dancing-partner. One of its first users was the American novelist, short story writer and playwright Edna Ferber (1885-1968) in Gigolo, which was published in the American magazine Woman’s Home Companion of November 1922 and thus begins:

In the first place, gigolo is slang. In the second place (with no desire to appear patronizing, but one’s French-conversation class does not include the argot),  it is French slang. In the third place, the gig is pronounce zhig, and the whole is not a respectable word. Finally, it is a term of utter contempt.
A gigolo, generally speaking, is a man who lives off women’s money. In the mad year 1922 A. W. [= After War], a gigolo, definitely speaking, designated one of those incredible and pathetic male creatures, born of war, who, for ten francs or more, or even less, would dance with any woman wishing to dance on the crowded floors of public tea rooms, dinner or supper rooms in the cafés, hotels, and restaurants of France. Lean, sallow, handsome, expert, and unwholesome, one saw them everywhere, their slim waists and sleek heads in juxtaposition to plump, respectable American matrons and slender, respectable American flappers. For that matter, feminine respectability of almost every nationality (except the French) yielded itself to the skillful guidance of the genus gigolo in the tango or fox-trot. Naturally, no decent French girl would have been allowed for a single moment to dance with a gigolo. But America, touring Europe like mad after years of enforced absence, outnumbered all other nationalities ten to one.

The word was borrowed from French gigolo, masculine of gigolette, from which it is derived. The first known use of these words is in an 1850 “popular song” quoted by the French lexicographer Lorédan Larchey (1831-1902) in Dictionnaire historique d’argot (Historical slang dictionary – 1878):

Si tu veux être ma gigolette,
Oui, je serai ton gigolo.
If you want to be my gigolette,
Yes, I’ll be your gigolo.

Larchey also gave the following definitions:

gigolette: grisette, faubourienne courant les bals publics.
gigolo: petit jeune homme fréquentant les lieux où se rencontre la gigolette.
gigolette: young coquettish working-class girl frequenting the public dance-halls.
gigolo: little young man frequenting the places where the gigolette is found.

These two words had been studied in detail in 1864 by the Parisian journalist and writer Alfred Delvau (1825-67) in Les Cythères parisiennes, histoire anecdotique des bals de Paris (The Parisian Cytheras, an anecdotal history of Paris dance-halls). In the following passage, the author writes about the dance-hall called Folies-Robert (original French text at the end of this article).—Explanatory notes:
muliéricule: Latin mulier, woman, and the diminutive suffix -ule, -(i)cule (as in capsule and minuscule).
greluchon (or amant de cœur, literally heart’s lover): when a woman has a live-in boyfriend who tolerates her having, in exchange for payment, regular sexual liaisons with other men, this boyfriend is referred to as her greluchon, and is proud of having for free what his rivals must pay for.
Totole, Guguste and Polyte: pet forms of Anatole, Auguste and Hippolyte.

We finally see there, we especially see there, gigolos and gigolettes ― a new word and new morals, which must be explained to those who do not know them. The gigolo is a teenager, a little man, in the same way that the gigolette is a teenager, a muliéricule. One occupies the middle ground between a cherub and a Don Juan ― half simpleton and half greluchon; the other is midway between the working-class girl and the hussy ― half factory girl and half harlot. The former might become a complete greluchon; the latter will most definitely become a harlot ― because, on the downward path to pleasure where they are both running, it is easier for men than for women to stop in time and to return to the bosom of honesty. Now, why the collaboration of these two youths? Because the gigolo and the gigolette are both children of the Paris cobbles, and they are similar in many respects: if I dared, I would say that one is the brother and the other the sister. The pig-ignorant gigolette is pleased to be able to babble freely with the equally ignorant gigolo without fearing his smiles and lectures; and to her, he is a lover of no consequence, whom, if need be, she would send as an ambassador to a serious lover ― and who would run the errand without being offended, being as stranger to decency as to rhetoric. Inconsequential lover, yet lover with all the privileges that this title entails ― and with all the expenses that it involves. ― “My little Totole, or my little Guguste, or my little Polyte,” says the gigolette to her gigolo, “I have my rent to pay the day after tomorrow, and he has only given me half of it: you must make up for the remainder.” And the gigolo pays up ― unless, using these ladies and gentlemen’s slang, he answers: “Damn all!”

In Dictionnaire de la langue verte, argots parisiens comparés, a dictionary of Parisian slang first published in 1866, the same author adds, about gigolette:

Jeune fille qui a jeté sa pudeur et son bonnet par-dessus les moulins, et qui fait consister son bonheur à aller jouer des gigues dans les bals publics, — surtout les bals de barrière.
Young woman who has flung her modesty and her cap over the windmills, and whose happiness consists in shaking her
legs in the public dance-halls, ― especially the disreputable ones.

In his dictionary, Alfred Delvau underlines the word gigues (which, in the same book, he defines as slang for jambes, legs), most probably because he sees this word as the origin of gigolette.

In the 1867 edition, he adds that the “common” people use their giguespour danser la gigue”, to dance the jig, and that the verb giguer means danser (to dance).

He also writes that:

gigues used to be called gigoteaux,

gigots is slang for thighs – in standard French, un gigot is a leg (of mutton, lamb),

– the verb gigoter is slang for remuer les gigues, danser, that is to shake the legs, to dance – in standard French, gigoter means to wriggle,

une gigue is a tall, skinny woman.

However, the connections that Alfred Delvau establishes between these words have to be clarified:

– The noun gigot, a leg (of mutton, lamb), which dates back to the 15th century, derives (because of the similarity of shapes) from Old French gigue, the name of a musical instrument resembling a mandolin.

– The noun gigot in turn gave rise to gigue in the sense of a (human) leg, especially a long one. Hence, by metonymy, the additional sense of a tall, skinny woman. (Similarly, un cuissot is a haunch (of venison or wild boar) and une cuisse is a (human) thigh).

– The noun gigue in the sense of jig is first recorded in the mid-17th century and seems to be the Frenchified form of the English name of the dance. Evidence is lacking to support the theory that it is from gigue, the musical instrument, via the obsolete verb giguer, to caper, leap, dance.

– The verb gigoter, to wriggle, is from the verb giguer, to which has been added the frequentative suffix -oter, expressing the intensity of the action.

– The origin of gigolette is uncertain. It is probably related to one of the meanings of gigue, and Alfred Delvau might have been right in thinking that this origin is gigues in the sense of legs. But there might have been an influence of the obsolete English word giglet, or giglot, which appeared in the 14th century and was still in use in the late 19th century. It originally meant a lewd, wanton woman, but, under the influence of giggle, it acquired the less unfavourable sense of a giddy, laughing, romping girl. This English giglet, giglot, is probably in some way related to one of the obsolete meanings of the English noun gig, which was a flighty, giddy girl.


Original French text by Alfred Delvau

On y voit enfin, on y voit surtout, des gigolos et des gigolettes, — un mot nouveau et des mœurs nouvelles, qu’il faut expliquer à ceux qui ne les connaissent pas. Le gigolo est un adolescent, un petit homme, comme la gigolette est une adolescente, une muliéricule. L’un tient le milieu entre Chérubin et Don Juan, — moitié nigaud et moitié greluchon ; l’autre tient le milieu entre la grisette et la gandine, — moitié ouvrière et moitié fille. Le premier deviendra peut-être tout à fait greluchon; la seconde deviendra très certainement une fille, — parce que, sur la pente du plaisir où ils courent tous deux, il est plus facile à l’homme qu’à la femme d’enrayer à temps et de rentrer dans le giron de l’honnêteté. Maintenant, pourquoi la collaboration de ces deux jeunesses ? Parce que le gigolo et la gigolette sont tous deux enfants du pavé de Paris, et qu’ils se ressemblent par une foule de côtés : si j’osais, je dirais que l’un est le frère et l’autre la sœur. La gigolette, qui est ignorante comme une carpe, n’est pas fâchée de pouvoir babiller à son aise avec le gigolo, aussi ignorant qu’elle, sans redouter ses sourires et ses leçons ; et puis, pour elle, c’est un amant sans conséquence, qu’au besoin elle enverrait comme ambassadeur chez un amant sérieux — et qui irait sans être offusqué de la commission, la délicatesse lui étant aussi inconnue que la rhétorique. Amant sans conséquence, mais cependant amant avec tous les privilèges que ce titre comporte, — et aussi avec toutes les charges qu’il entraîne avec soi. — « Mon petit Totole, ou mon petit Guguste, ou mon petit Polyte, » dit la gigolette à son gigolo, « j’ai mon terme à payer après-demain, et il ne m’en a donné que la moitié : il faut que tu me fasses le reste. » Et le gigolo s’exécute, — à moins qu’employant l’argot de ces dames et de ces messieurs il ne lui réponde : « Du flan ! »

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.