[Note: An updated post about “jury-rigged,” “jerry-rigged,” and “jerry-built” appeared on the blog on Dec. 13, 2019.]
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 since 1896, according to our searches of old newspaper databases, 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.” (Merriam-Webster’s has an earlier example from 1782 on its website.)
The writer used the expression as a passive verb. To “jury-rig” now means to improvise or do something in a makeshift way.
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).
Buy our books at a local store or Amazon.com.