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I still have my weird leather helmet.

Dear Word Detective: Where did the word “jerrycan” come from? — Achintyarup Ray.


Lulu Belle

Ah, a succinct question, but one that brings back pungent memories. It was back in 1942, just before the second battle at El Alamein, when our tiny tank Lulu Belle and its crew were marooned in the trackless Sahara. Just me, Humphrey Bogart, Dan Duryea, my pal Frenchie, and a bunch of guys whose names I never caught. We had run out of water the week before and were surviving on six jerrycans of cheap red wine Frenchie had found when the real Jerries (German troops) showed up. Things were pretty hazy by that point, but apparently the Germans were big Bogie fans, so they surrendered toot sweet and we all went home. Then Bogart stole our story and made a movie about it called “Sahara.” Frenchie and I never saw a dime of the loot, but we’ll always have El Alamein.


Not fair, Bogie.

OK, my memory may be playing tricks on me in that paragraph, but there is a direct connection between “jerrycan,” meaning a flat-sided five-gallon metal container usually used to carry or store gasoline, and the German army during World War II. The Germans developed this distinctive type of container early in the war, and considered its design a military secret. After Allied troops captured a few, the British and American forces copied the design and issued millions of the cans to their troops in the field. Since “Jerry” (derived from the word “German”) had been derogatory slang for German soldiers among British troops since World War I, the containers were immediately known as “jerrycans” (or, occasionally, “jerricans”). The genius of the jerrycan was that it could be easily stored, could be carried by one soldier, and, unlike other cans in use at the time, allowed the contents to be poured without a funnel or hose. Jerrycans are still used by many armies and are common in civilian use as well, but are now usually made of plastic.

The “jerry” in “jerrycan” brings to mind two other terms that often cause confusion. We speak of something as being “jerrybuilt” when it is poorly made of inferior materials or constructed in a flimsy fashion. But this “jerry” seems to be unconnected to the slang “German” sense of “jerry,” and “jerrybuilt” dates back to the late 19th century. It’s likely that “jerrybuilt” is connected to an actual person named “Jerry,” perhaps a particularly notorious homebuilder, but the exact source is unknown. “Jury-rigged,” on the other hand, means that something, once broken, has been patched together well enough to work for the moment. It comes from the old naval term “jury-mast,” meaning a temporary, makeshift mast substituted for one broken at sea. The standard theory, although unverified, is that “jury” was originally short for “injury.” This “jury-rig” appears to be completely unconnected to “jury rig” in the “subvert a trial” sense.

The English language being the unruly child that it is, you’ll often hear various “mashups” of these terms, “jerryrig” in particular, and it’s probable that eventually “jury-rigged” and “jerrybuilt” will simply fuse into one term. But for the moment, there remains a shade of difference between the two, as “jerrybuilt” connotes deliberately shoddy work, while “jury-rigged” describes an honest attempt to make do in an emergency.

Ride out of town on a rail

Go now

Dear Word Detective: I just watched “O Brother Where Art Thou” on TV and it struck me that the scene where Homer Stokes is “ridden out of town on a rail” seemed, well, just a little too literal. I have looked for other explanations on the internet, but I’m not sure if I can trust those sources and I would like to hear it from you. — Rick.

I saw that movie. I remember seeing that movie. But I don’t remember much of anything about that movie, except that it was supposed to follow the general outline of Homer’s Odyssey and it contained George Clooney and some interesting music. I’ve had this problem with movies since I was a kid; they just don’t sink in the way books do. The bright side is that I can watch movies I like over and over again and be entertained, which drives the people around me crazy. But there really are subtleties in “Tremors” you don’t catch the first ten times.


An obvious candidate.

All of that is by way of explanation of the fact that I didn’t remember who Homer Stokes was or exactly what fate befell him in the movie. After consulting Wikipedia, however, I understand that he was a demagogic politician who, having been exposed as a hypocrite (quelle surprise!), was unceremoniously driven from town “on a rail.”

To “ride someone out of town on a rail” is a classic American locution dating back to the early 19th century. In its usual figurative use, “to ride someone out of town on a rail” means to severely punish them by means of ridicule or public condemnation and, optimally, to banish the person utterly from further serious consideration in whatever field they committed their offense.

For a phrase more than 200 years old, and one that seems quite mysterious when you really stop to think about it, “ride someone out of town on a rail” remains remarkably popular in common usage. The current economic crisis in particular, with its target-rich environment for vengeful urges, has apparently put a lot of folks in the mood to “ride someone out of town on a rail” (“In the old days the management of both [the banks and General Motors] would have been run out of town on a rail after being tarred and feathered for lying and cheating investors, workers and retirees,” letter, Detroit Free Press, 4/12/09).

“Running men out of town on a rail is at least as much an American tradition as declaring unalienable rights,” according to historian Gary Wills in “Inventing America” (1978), and the punishment does seem to have been a fairly common, and uniquely American, phenomenon until the early 20th century. While the “rail” in the phrase might conjure up images of the disgraced malefactor being dispatched out of town via the nearest railroad track, the actual “rail” involved in literally “riding someone out of town” was usually the sort of rail used to construct fences, i.e., a long, often rough-hewn, bar of wood. The victim was usually seated astride the rail as one would ride a horse (a position which was, not surprisingly, very painful). The rail and its rider were then borne by two men, usually part of a large mob, to the town limits, where the banishee was dumped in a ditch and warned not to return. The warning was often amplified by the application of hot tar and feathers to the rider, a punishment that was extremely painful, often permanently disfiguring, and occasionally fatal.

Since I don’t remember “O Brother Where Art Thou” in any detail, I can’t comment on the accuracy of the film’s depiction of this ritual. But if it involved a howling mob and a long piece of wood, they were in the ballpark.


Stubbed, stove and just plain busted

Dear Word Detective: I recently stubbed my toe on my kitchen table. The thought occurred to me — why do we say, “I stubbed my toe”? We don’t “stub” other body parts, not our ankles, knees, chin, or elbows. You smack, hit, whack, bang up, etc., but not “stub” them. I’ve tried researching this on my own and I found nothing. The meaning of the word “stubbed” comes from tree stumps in a field, but I can’t follow it from there. Anything you could find out would be great! — Lainey.

Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ve not only stubbed but actually broken most of the toes on both my feet over the years. I’m not sure why we don’t speak of “stubbing” one’s fingers, however. I was using a shovel last year and managed to severely “stub” my little finger when my grip slipped.  [Update:  It was broken.  Duh.  Now it has a funny kink in it.]

No reason.

I have no idea what this means.

The verb “to stub” comes from the noun “stub,” which, as you found, originally meant “the stump of a tree” and comes from the Old English “stybb.” Over the centuries since then, “stub” has acquired a variety of meanings, most involving something shortened, stunted, or cut off, frequently the remaining portion of something (as in the “stub” of a movie ticket). As a verb, “to stub,” which first appeared in the 15th century, initially meant “to dig up by the roots” (i.e., to remove a tree stump, etc.), but soon developed a range of related meanings centered on the general idea of either “shortening” or “crushing” various things.

In the late 17th century, however, people began to speak of “stubbing” a horse, injuring its legs, by allowing it to trip over or jam its hooves on “stubs,” tree stumps. By the mid-19th century, this use of “stub” had carried over to humans, and meant specifically to strike one’s toe against an obstruction while walking or running. While this verb “to stub” does refer back to the noun “stub” in the “tree stump” sense, it also invokes the sense of “shortening” one’s toe by jamming it lengthwise into an object. It’s that “lengthwise” smashing that distinguishes “stubbing” one’s toe from simply “banging” one’s elbow or knee. The same verb “to stub” is used to mean extinguishing a cigarette or cigar by crushing the lighted end into a solid surface.

Incidentally, the verb used to describe “stubbing” one’s finger the way I did is, for some strange reason, “to stave,” a verb which originally meant to destroy a cask or barrel by smashing the “staves” of which it was constructed. “Stave” is actually the archaic plural of “staff” in the sense of “rod or stick,” and when we speak of “staving off an attack,” it originally meant to use sticks as weapons. A ship which has had a hole punched in its hull (e.g., by a rock) is said to be “stove” (the archaic past tense of “stave”) or “stove in,” and a finger which has be damaged by being jammed with great force lengthwise into an object is said to be “stove.” The term “stove in” has also been used, since the early 20th century, as slang for anything that is worn out or run down, including people (“Mr. Avery’ll be in bed for a week — he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that,” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird, 1960).