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A jerry-rigged etymology

Q: Growing up in the 1950s, I heard World War II veterans use “Jerry-rigged” to describe the booby traps, repairs, etc., that German soldiers made from whatever materials were on hand. I don’t care what academic snobs say. It has nothing to do with “jury-rigged,” which is rigging a court jury.

A: It’s true that in World Wars I and II, Allied soldiers, sailors, and flyers referred to the Germans as “Jerry.” And with that usage in mind, they may have described makeshift improvisations by the enemy as “jerry-rigged” (though we haven’t found any written evidence of this).

However, the expression “jerry-rigged” was in use for decades before anyone referred to German combatants as “Jerry.” We’ve found uses of “jerry-rigged” dating from the 1890s, when the “jerry” part simply meant badly made.

As we wrote in a 2008 post, standard dictionaries now accept “jerry-rigged” as a legitimate usage. Etymologically, they say, it’s a mash-up of two earlier terms: “jury-rigged” (improvised or makeshift) and “jerry-built” (badly done).

American Heritage calls the verb “jerry-rig” an “alteration (influenced by jerry-build) of jury-rig.” And Merriam-Webster says the adjective “jerry-rigged” is “probably [a] blend of jerry-built and jury-rigged.”

M-W has an interesting discussion of all these terms in an online usage note. As the dictionary points out, the “jerry” here meant shoddily built or cheaply made as far back as the 1830s. And the “jury” we’re talking about is unrelated to the courtroom term; it was an old nautical adjective meaning makeshift or improvised. Similarly, “rig” was originally a nautical verb meaning to fit out with rigging.

So the latecomer here is the use of “Jerry” to mean Germans—either collectively or individually. That usage, first recorded in writing in 1915, was “chiefly” used during the two World Wars—especially the second—as a less derogatory term than “Kraut,” “Boche,” or “Hun,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The OED suggests the usage was a shortening of “German” plus a “-y” suffix, along the lines of the English nickname “Jerry” (for Gerald, Jeremy, etc.).

The earliest known uses in writing are from Canadian soldiers who served with the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front in World War I. Here are the OED citations:

“Jerry had several shots at me and missed.” (From an entry written Dec. 9, 1915, in The Journal of Private [Donald] Fraser, 1914-1918. This is the first of several references to “Jerry” in the Canadian serviceman’s diary.)

“ ‘Gott strafe the Umpire,’ ‘Heave a bomb at him Jerry!’ ” (A Christmas Garland from the Front, published in December 1915 by the 5th Canadian Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, then fighting in France and Belgium. The quotes are from a baseball game at a rest camp away from the firing line.)

But the term was not just Canadian, as these OED citations show: “They talked of the Germans as ‘Jerries’ ” (from the Scotsman, a journal published in Edinburgh, Sept. 12, 1916) … “Two dead Jerries were brought down to H.Q.” (a Dec. 14, 1916, entry in the journal of Pvt. Frank Dunham, an English stretcher bearer, published as The Long Carry in 1970).

The word “Jerry” was a wartime adjective, too, as in this OED citation from Dunham’s journal: “Our company was accommodated in two Jerry concrete dugouts” (July 10, 1917).

Now for a closer look at those other terms—“jury,” “jerry,” “rig”—and how they came together in compounds.

The use of “jury” to mean makeshift or temporary has roots in Middle English. In the late 1400s, a makeshift, temporary sail was called a “jori-seil” or “jory saile,” according to the University of Michigan’s Middle English Dictionary. (In later centuries the compound was spelled “jury-sail.”)

The adjective “jury,” the OED says, was used by sailors to mean “put together or contrived for temporary use,” and first appeared in its modern spelling in  the compound “jury-mast” (1616). Oxford defines this as “a temporary mast put up in place of one that has been broken or carried away.”

Besides “jury-mast,” we’ve seen such nautical compounds as “jury-rudder,” “jury-rigging,” “jury-tiller,” “jury-hatch,” and “jury-sheets.”

The origins of “jury” aren’t known, though the Middle English Dictionary compares it with the Old French noun jöerie or jüerie (joke, jesting, play). And the OED suggests the possibility that it may have been “a jocular appellation invented by sailors.”

The seafaring verb “rig” appeared around 1500 or earlier, the OED says, and meant “to prepare (a sailing ship or boat) for going to sea,” specifically “to set up the sails and rigging of (a sailing vessel).” Its origins are unknown, the dictionary says.

By the 1700s, “rig” had acquired another meaning, Oxford says: “to construct, put together, or place in position, hastily or as a makeshift.” The dictionary cites this passage from an anonymous poem published in 1754: “Up and rig a jury fore-mast, / She rights! she rights!”

The words “jury” and “rig” were eventually joined in the adjective “jury-rigged,” first recorded in writing in the 1780s. The M-W usage note cites this early example: “La Couronne … bad bottoms, jury rigged” (from the Morning Herald, London, Aug. 16, 1782).

Next we come to “jerry,” the adjective meaning shoddy or badly done. The OED defines it as “constructed unsubstantially of bad materials.” Its origin is uncertain.

M-W cites this early usage from the 1830s: “Mr. Heighton, a house owner … was asked what was the meaning of the Jerry style of architecture. ‘Any thing that is badly built,’ was the reply. … ‘And what do you call the Jerry style?’ ‘If the work is not well done, and the houses not well finished, we call that the Jerry style’ ” (reported from court testimony in the Liverpool Mercury, April 12, 1839).

The compound “jerry built” soon followed. The OED’s definition is similar to that of “jerry” but adds “built to sell but not to last.”

The M-W usage note has this early example: “The warehouses themselves which have been destroyed were of the class called ‘Jerry built,’ ” (the Guardian, London, Sept. 28, 1842).

The OED says the term’s origin is “not ascertained,” but it probably “originated in some way from the name Jerry.”

As we’ve said, those two compounds—“jury-rigged” and “jerry-built”—were blended in the late 19th century to form “jerry-rigged.”

The earliest examples we’ve found begin in the 1890s and are from newspapers published in Australia. Here are examples of the term as a noun, a verb, and an adjective.

“A man in the employ of Mr. E. J. Black narrowly escaped an accident through the tyre coming off his dray. Mr Martin, our blacksmith, fixed him up under ‘jerry-rig.’ ” (A small news item in the Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate, Oct. 17, 1896.)

“The old committee refused to commit the hospital to an expenditure of about £3000, when they had only £1000 in hand, and they are to be succeeded by gentlemen who are going to Jerry-rig a new hospital or bust—we believe they’ll bust.” (An editorial in the Gundagai Independent, Feb. 4, 1903.)

“I learned this one afternoon when something went wrong with the jerry-rigged derrick we were using.” (An article about deep-sea diving in the Albury Banner and Wodonga Express, June 3, 1904.)

When World War I arrived, along with the nickname “Jerry” for Germans, it’s not surprising that the mash-up phrase “jerry-rigged” may have been reinterpreted.

As we’ve said, dictionaries now accept both “jury-rigged” and “jerry-rigged” to describe something put together in a makeshift way. Although “jury-rigged” is more popular, “jerry-rigged” is closing the gap, according to Google’s Ngram viewer, which compares phrases in digitized books.

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