The Grammarphobia Blog

A jerry-rigged expression?

Q: Help me, Rhonda! I am so tired of coming across the term “jerry-rigged.” Writers great and small, learned and not so learned, constantly get this wrong. The term is either “jury-rigged,” referring to a makeshift emergency repair, or “jerry-built,” meaning thrown together with whatever’s handy. These terms are not the same.

A: I don’t think Rhonda will be of much help on this one.

The term “jerry-rigged” has already made it into both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.) – without any warning labels.

American Heritage says  the verb “jerry-rig” is an alteration of “jury-rig” influenced by “jerry-build.” Merriam-Webster’s says the participial adjective “jerry-rigged” is probably a blend of “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built.” Thus language changes.

In fact, this “new” jury-rigged (or jerry-built) phrase isn’t all that new. It’s been with us for nearly half a century, according to Merriam-Webster’s, and means built in a crude or improvised manner.

Of the three expressions, “jury-rigged” is by far the oldest, with roots going back to the early 17th century, when a “jury-mast” was a temporary mast put up to replace one that was broken or carried away, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The earliest published reference in the OED for “jury-rigged” is in a 1788 travel book: “The ships to be jury rigged: that is, to have smaller masts, yards, and rigging, than would be required for actual service.”

The writer used the expression as a passive verb.  To “jury-rig” now means to improvise or do something in a makeshift way.

The first citation for “jerry-built” is in an 1869 glossary: “Jerry-built, slightly, or unsubstantially built.” The origin of the expression is unknown, but it’s thought to be influenced by the use of the word “jerry” in English dialect to mean defective. The expression still refers to something that’s shoddily made.

The language sleuth Hugh Rawson, in his book Devious Derivations, lists eight of the more imaginative theories about the origin of “jerry-built,” including suggestions that “jerry” refers to the biblical walls of Jericho, the prophet Jeremiah, or German soldiers.

I’m not ready to use “jerry-rigged” myself, but with 56,000 hits on Google, it’s holding its own with “jerry-built” (79,000) and “jury-rigged” (123,000).

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