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shameless pleading

Jerry rig / Jury rig

Caught in the rigging.

Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about the word “jerryrig,” as in to make do with materials on hand. I recently saw it spelled “juryrig,” but the context seemed to be the same. Is the correct spelling “jerry” or “jury” and what is the origin of the word? What, if anything, does it have to do with a rigged jury? — Jill Fitzpatrick.

Not much, if anything. Then again, some of the juries running around out there these days could probably do with a little jury-rigging, perhaps a little money under the table for paying attention to the simple facts of the case. Between turning certain people loose in the face of mountains of evidence and fining other folks millions of dollars for lying on their job applications, juries are rather rapidly reaching a level of credibility formerly attained only by UFOlogists and mail-order psychics.

In any case, the “jury-rig” (it is usually hyphenated) you’re asking about has nothing whatever to do with juries in the judicial sense. “Jury” was originally a naval term for any makeshift contrivance substituting for the real thing in an emergency, most commonly found in the term “jury-mast,” a temporary mast constructed in place of one that had been broken. There’s some debate about where the word “jury” in this sense came from, with the leading (but unverified) theory being that it was short for “injury.”

To say that something is “jerryrigged” is to mix idioms a bit, because the proper term is “jerrybuilt.” A “jerrybuilder,” a term dating to 19th-century England, was originally a house builder who constructed flimsy homes from inferior materials. The “jerry” in the term may have been a real person known for the practice, or may be a mangled form of “jury,” as in “jury-rigged.” I tend to think that “jerrybuilt” arose separately from “jury-rig” simply because their senses are slightly different. Something that is “jury-rigged” is concocted on the spur of the moment to meet an emergency, but something “jerrybuilt” is deliberately constructed of inferior materials to turn a quick buck.

7 comments to Jerry rig / Jury rig

  • Meredith

    Interesting! Thank you. I have wondered about that phrase for ages! I had thought it might have to do with the Germans during WWll being referred to as “Jerry.”

    • John

      I had heard that about the Germans and WWII too. The way it was explained was that in the North African Campaign The Germans were running out of parts for their equipment. The British referred to some of the makeshift repairs that they saw on captured equipment as Jerry-rigged. I guess that’s not right.

  • Seth

    Or perhaps Jury =~ “Jouree”, from the French jour, or day, a repair to last the day. Mast of the day, just for today.

    Just a thought.

  • MaxL

    I had been looking for info on this before I got here and had found this:

    From An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921):

    “I conjecture that jerry-built may be for jury-built, the naut. jury, as in jury-mast, being used for all sorts of makeshifts and inferior objects, e.g. jury-leg, wooden leg, jury-rigged, jury meal, etc. Its early connection with Liverpool, where jerry-building is recorded in a local paper for 1861, makes naut. origin likely.”

    From Barrere & Leland, Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant (1897):

    “Jerry: This word is common among the lower classes of the great cities of England in such phrases as jerry-go-nimble, diahrrœa; jerry-shop, an unlicensed public-house with a back door entrance, and jerry-builder, a cheap and inferior builder who runs up those miserable, showy-looking tenements, neither air-proof nor water-proof. Jerry seems derivable from the gypsy jerr or jir (i.e.,jeer), the rectum, whence its application to diarrhœa, a back door, and all that is contemptible. From the same root we have the Gaelic jerie, pronounced jarey, behind ; the French derriere.”

  • wiley nelson

    i was told ( in the navy ) that jury refered to brainstorming ideas for a quick fix by several crewmen, a jury.

  • John

    Proper use is “jury” – most definitely NOT jerry or gerry (the latter is the English pejorative for a German). Its etymology comes from what was already stated by another. Jury-rigging and a jury-mast were found on sailing ships where it was very common, especially on sea-going vessels to carry a spare jury-mast below, to be used in the event a storm or battle dis-masted the ship. In days of sail, a ship that could not erect a sail of some kind was completely adrift and in dire straits. Using a longboat with oarsman was not feasible for anything but a short distance. Jerry or Gerry is a very common misnomer and improper usage, just like “towing the line” should be toeing the line, and “cutting the mustard” should be cutting the muster.

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