Exploring the pathways of our lexicon
Mailbag Friday: "Jerry-Rigged"
My mention earlier this week of the word gerrymander (after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry, blamed for the tortuous redistricting in his state in 1812) inspired some free association. One commenter posited a connection to the jerry of jerry-built ("shoddy; of inferior workmanship and materials"), though it turns out that word only shows up about half a century after Gerry first gerrymandered. Jerry-built, in turn, led another VT subscriber to wonder, "What about jerry-rigged? I've heard that it's really supposed to be jury-rigged."
Jury-rigged does indeed have historical precedence, with citations in the Oxford English Dictionary all the way back to 1788. In that year, William Thomson published an account of a trip to Scotland in which he suggested that Scottish fishermen train in the "practical art of seamanship" on ships that are "jury rigged: that is, to have smaller masts, yards, and rigging, than would be required for actual service." That use of jury originates in the term jury mast, attested since the early seventeenth century, meaning "a temporary mast to replace one that has broken off." No one's quite sure where the jury of jury mast comes from, though some speculate it's derived from Old French ajurie, meaning "help." (The OED also notes a theory that jury mast is short for injury mast, but there's no good evidence for that.) Jury-rigged then got extended beyond the nautical world to be a synonym for "makeshift" or "improvised."
Jerry-built first shows up in 1869 in a glossary from the Lonsdale region of Lancashire, England, and the expression is said to have originated in nearby Liverpool. There are all sorts of explanations for where the jerry part came from, with some even taking it back to the Bible (either from Jericho, whose walls famously came tumbling down, or from the prophet Jeremiah, who made predictions about things falling apart). Others say there were two brothers named Jerry who ran a building firm in Liverpool and whose work was notoriously shoddy. Still others imagine a relation to French jour meaning "day" (since day workers are considered to be sloppy craftsmen). But for all we know, the jerry in jerry-built could have started off as a corruption of the jury in jury-rigged. (We do know that there's no connection to the use of Jerry as a pejorative nickname for Germans, since that didn't arise until World War I.)
Given the similar meaning (and possible etymological connection, even if it's lost in the mists of time), it's no surprise that jury-rigged and jerry-built should get mashed up into jerry-rigged. Some authorities like Paul Brians treat jerry-rigged as an error, but the word has already entered at least one dictionary: American Heritage, which calls it an alteration of jury-rigged (influenced by jerry-built), not explicitly marked as erroneous. I think it's rather poetic that two words having to do with patchwork, on-the-fly construction should get melded together like a hot rod made out of spare parts.
And to return to the theme of eponyms (names made into words, like Gerry becoming gerrymander), there's a great pop-cultural eponym that evokes both jury-rigging and jerry-building: MacGyver, after the resourceful title character of the beloved '80s television show. As Jack Hitt explained in his 1992 book In A Word, macgyver can be used as a verb to mean "to make repairs in an emergency situation from whatever materials are at hand; to cobble together." Example: "When the windshield wipers decided to fall apart during a sleet storm in the middle of a long road trip, he macgyvered them with a piece of wire from a spiral notebook and a straw left over from a fast-food trek." Oftentimes in the history of English, words get macgyvered too.
Do you have your own question about the history of a word or phrase that you'd like to have discussed in a future Mailbag Friday? Click here and let us know!