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From Merriam-Webster's entry for zig

zigs when others zag.

From Senate rankings: 5 seats most likely to flip:

“It’s going to be tough,” one Democratic operative conceded. “But Montana has that ability to zag when people zig.”

Zig and zag are synonymous, and both means to make a sharp turn, correct? What does the example mean?

When the order between zig and zag is exchanged, does it still mean the same, as "zag when others zig" in the second example?

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5 Answers 5

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To zig and to zag both mean to make a sharp turn, but when used together they usually mean turning in different directions, such that when alternating, the turns create a zig-zag:

an image of a zig-zag pattern

Metaphorically, zigging when others zag means doing something else or going in a different direction than others. A more common idiom with a similar explanation is to zig when one should zag:

To move in a particular direction when one should move in a different direction in order to avoid some obstacle or impediment. A reference to moving from side to side in a zigzag pattern.

In the sentence in question, the Democratic operative claims that Montana can sometimes not follow what the people (presumably in other states) are doing - in an election context, this means that it's possible that the results of Montana elections will not follow nationwide trends.

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    @Lambie It seems to, to me. I take it to mean "Montana ['s voting trends] can sometimes run counter to larger trends among similar demographics." Apr 2 at 17:48
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    @Lambie I'm not sure what your issue is. Metaphorically, zigging when others zag means doing something else or going in a different direction than others. - is this not enough of an answer to the question in the title? I trust that the OP can apply this general definition to the specific example - I don't agree with you that the full quote is needed, the meaning is "Montana can sometimes act in a way that's contrary to other states" and the rest is interpretation in context. Apr 2 at 19:11
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    @Lambie the question was about the meaning of the idiom. The idiom has an exact meaning - "to do something differently than most". You don't need the context to get that meaning, and applying that meaning to the context goes outside of linguistic knowledge and into interpretation. And I think a general definition is going to be more useful - if the OP encounters this or a similar phrase again in a different context, they can use the same definition, or use the provided etymology to deduce the exact meaning. Telling them "it means Montana will vote Biden" doesn't help. Apr 2 at 20:03
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    @Lambie zig: to move in one of the two directions followed in a zigzag course Apr 2 at 20:10
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    @Lambie I'm really confused by your comments here. I think your answer demonstrates that you understand the idiom but I can't figure out why you think this doesn't answer the question. I see this answer and yours as saying basically the same thing but with different emphasis. What distinction do you see that I'm missing? I get that you are challenging the definition of zig and zag but how is "doing something else or going in a different direction than others" different from your explanation?
    – JimmyJames
    Apr 4 at 21:05
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The upshot of the remark about Montana zagging when others are zigging is that Montana is unpredictable. The phrase has that ability there is synonymous with "can, as everyone knows".

Montana can, as everyone knows, follow a course that is contrary to expectation and prevailing trends.

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    When the order between zig and zag is exchanged, does it still mean the same, as "zag when others zig" in the second example ?
    – Tim
    Apr 3 at 4:14
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    It does; it's like there is no difference between "you are the yang to my yin" and "you are the yin to my yang" or other pairs of complementary objects. (Granted, there are some semantic differences between yin and yang; but let's assume us Westerners have only the vaguest ideas what those are exactly.)
    – tripleee
    Apr 3 at 7:07
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    While zigging and zagging is the normal order of the expression, I don't think it would matter in this particular twist on the phrase to say that Montana is zigging while others are zagging, or vice versa; the implication would be the same.
    – TimR
    Apr 3 at 10:02
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    @Tim (1) There is NO usual order of expression. Both are completely common (as is the case with all "pair word common and/or humorous phrases" in English. (2) there is absolutely NO difference if one order or the other is used. (It's also quite common to use both humorously: "He zigs when others zag and zags when others zig.")
    – Fattie
    Apr 3 at 14:56
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    @Fattie There certainly is a usual order for native speakers. This kind of format is (generically) called ablaut reduplication and the order of vowels is generally from the front of the mouth to the back. It's understandable if you say it the other way but it feels very awkward. Apr 3 at 15:55
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There's a lot of disagreement here and you might be more confused about this than you were when you asked. There are a number of answers here. None of them are outright wrong and some primarily address the title of your question, and some try to address the specific quote and what is meant by it in context. Unfortunately, I don't think any of them really get the context of the quote quite right. In terms of general question around the idiom 'what does "zigs when others zag" mean?', see Maciej Stachowski's answer.

As far as the specific quote goes, there are a lot of details required to really understand it. First off, this is not about the presidential election as stated/implied in some of the answers. The entire article is about senate elections. Specifically, the section this idiom appears in is about an upcoming election for one of Montana's 2 senate seats. The context of the quote relates to the incumbent senator from Montana since 2006: Jon Tester. So why is Biden mentioned? The reason that's relevant is that senate elections occur every 6 years while presidential elections are every 4 years. (Side note: not every senator is up for reelection at the same time.) It's a well-known phenomenon that when a senator or house seat election aligns with the presidential election, the turnout for elections tends to be much higher compared to 'off-years' when there are no presidential candidates on the ballot.

In 'off year' elections where there is no presidential election, a smaller subset of the voting populace shows up at the polls. They tend to be older and more politically aware. Tester barely won in his last (off-year) election.

In the last presidential election (2016) when Tester was not on the ballot, Trump won the Montana electoral college votes by an overwhelming 15 (percentage) points over Biden. In most states, you can expect that voters will vote along 'party lines'. That is, most of the people who turn out to vote for Trump will vote for 'down ballot' Republicans as well. A lot of Trump supporters will only show up when Trump is on the ballot. All of these facts look bad for Tester.

So finally, we can now get to the meaning of the phrase "zags when other zig" in this context. It's important to understand that the person quoted is an unnamed source who is a political operative likely speaking 'off the record', not a politician who is running for office. The idea they are trying to convey is that perhaps the Montana voters will not vote along party lines as expected in other similar elections for incumbent Democrats in Trump-supporting states. That is, they will go against the national trend and Trump voters will also vote for the incumbent Democrat Senator or abstain.

As to what is meant by 'Montana has that ability', I think we can presume that refers to Montana's tendency to not follow the rest of the country in some (I think) surprising ways. For example, Montana is the only state in the US which doesn't follow a primarily 'at-will' employment regime.

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the verb is to zigzag: It means to move in one direction and then turn sharply and move in the other direction.

He ran up the hill in a zigzag pattern.

So, people take zig and zag and apply it to situations.

For example: We don't agree on how to solve a problem. There are two solutions. I could say: You zig on this while I zag. [when we know those two solutions]

In the extract from The Hill, the full quote is needed:

The former president won the state by more than 15 points four years ago, with that margin potentially increasing as President Biden’s standing in the polls has dipped nationwide.

“It’s going to be tough,” one Democratic operative conceded. “But Montana has that ability to zag when people zig.”

So, the operative is saying that even if Biden is not doing well in nationwide polls, in Montana he will do well because Montana goes in a different direction than other states.

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    I would find "You zig on this while I zag" a very strange form of the idiom in that case. I found one war movie using "you zig, I'll zag" to mean physically separating so that somebody survives, but I don't see it used about a disagreement. (I'd usually say "why don't you try your way and I'll try mine", "let's agree to disagree" or if I was really reaching for an idiom, "You take the high road, I'll take the low road", "let's divide and conquer", "to each their own", etc)
    – Kaia
    Apr 2 at 21:30
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    (I agree w/ you & Maciej about the meaning of the Montana excerpt though.)
    – Kaia
    Apr 2 at 21:39
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    Whether people up-vote this or not, this is absolutely the right answer. To "zig when you should zag" builds on "zigzag". It means you went one direction when you should have went the other, or implies someone or something will do the opposite people expect. Apr 3 at 16:16
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    For example, I can't tell you how many times I've taken a turn while driving and uttered, "Oops! I zigged when I should have zagged." upon realizing I turned left when I should have turned right. Apr 3 at 16:18
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    And this is a very context-dependent idiom. It does not necessarily imply a direction of travel. I can be a direction of opinion (for versus against something). Or the direction of stock prices, for instance. If you expect stock prices to go up, but instead they go down, you could say "stock prices zigged instead of zagged." Or describe opposing decisions. For instance, if I sold stock just before prices rose, I might say "I zigged when I should have zagged" to imply I sold the stocks too soon before prices rose. Apr 3 at 16:21
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The actual answer:

"What does "zigs when others zag" mean?"

He "zigs when others zag" (worded exactly like that) is a completely commonplace idiom in English.

It simply means: someone who is independent, who "goes their own way", who does not "go with the crowd".

There is nothing else to say or explain.

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    I wouldn't say it's 'commonplace'. I don't see it used very much, except in literature (and even then it's rare).
    – Daemonic
    Apr 4 at 23:46
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    For reference, starting a response with "The actual answer:" is a great way to start a fight. Finishing it by stating that a different answer is "precisely correct" makes me wonder what the point of this one was.
    – MikeB
    Apr 5 at 11:04

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