Q: I was listening to NPR when a caller suggested that both “jerry-built” and “gerrymander” originated with Elbridge Gerry. I believe the caller erred. If I’m not mistaken, the term “jerry-built” predates the Massachusetts governor’s shenanigans.
A: We’ve written before on the blog about “jury-rigged,” “jerry-built,” and the mash-up “jerry-rigged,” which has now made its way into dictionaries.
As we say in our 2008 posting, the earliest published reference for “jerry-built” in the Oxford English Dictionary dates from 1869.
That’s about half a century after “gerrymander” first appeared in print. (Jury-rigged,” the oldest of these terms, showed up in the late 1700s and has roots going back to the early 1600s.)
You’re a bit off about the dates, but you’re right about the etymology. The only thing “jerry-built” and “gerrymander” have in common is the pronunciation of their first two syllables. And even that hasn’t always been the case.
The earliest incarnation of “gerrymander” was as a noun for a voting district created to give an unfair advantage to a political party.
The first citation in the OED for the usage is from the May 23, 1812, issue of the Columbian Centinel, a Boston newspaper: “The sensibility of the good people of Massachusetts is … awakened to this ‘Gerrymander.’ ”
The verb showed up in two citations later that year, including this one from the Dec. 28, 1812, issue of the New York Post: “They attempted also to Gerrymander the State for the choice of Representatives to Congress.”
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology says the term combines the governor’s last name, “Gerry,” with the word “salamander,” the rough shape of a district his party created to give it a political advantage.
Although Gerry pronounced his name with a hard g (as in “go”), Chambers notes, “gerrymander” has been pronounced with a soft g (as in “gem”) since the word lost its association with the governor.
One OED citation for “gerrymander” (from The Memorial History of Boston, 1881) says the painter Gilbert Stuart coined the term on seeing a map of the contorted district created by Gerry’s party.
Although several reference books mention the Stuart story, we haven’t been able to find an authoritative source that confirms it.
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