Is it jury-rigged or jerry-built or jerry-rigged?

Saturday, June 22nd, 2019

When you duct-tape some complicated structure together, is it jury-rigged or jerry-built or jerry-rigged?

If we were building this structure back in the 18th century, we would have only one of these terms available to us: jury-rig has meant “to erect, construct, or arrange in a makeshift fashion” since the late 18th century, and appears in its participial jury-rigged form from its earliest days. The only caveat here is that our 18th century selves would be using the word completely unconventionally in this context—unless the many-tiered carpeted cat structure were also a boat. That’s right: in its early days jury-rigged was a strictly nautical term.

That fact is also our clue that jury-rig has nothing to do with the juries of the courtroom. Jury-rig comes from the adjective jury, meaning “improvised for temporary use especially in an emergency,” or “makeshift.” It’s a 15th century term that comes from the Middle English jory, as known (back then, anyway) in the phrase “jory sail,” meaning “improvised sail.”

The rig in jury-rigged likewise has nothing to do with the rig that has to do with manipulating or controlling something, like a game or election, to get a desired result. That rig is from a 17th century noun meaning “swindle.” The rig in jury-rigged is a 15th century sailing term meaning “to fit out with rigging,” with rigging being the lines and chains used in operating a sailing vessel. In the 18th century, if it was jury-rigged it was a boat:

La Couronne … bad bottoms, jury rigged.
Morning Herald (London), 16 Aug. 1782

Jury-rigged was, of our three words, the only option for describing our questionably constructed many-tiered carpeted cat structure for quite a while. But in the mid-19th century another word came along: jerry-built means “built cheaply and unsubstantially” as well as “carelessly or hastily put together.” The origin of this word is unknown, though there is plenty of speculation that it’s from some poor slob named Jerry, which is a nickname for Jeremy or Jeremiah. While one named Jerry may reasonably disdain the word, jerry-built is not considered to be a slur. Jerry was used in British English around the time of the First World War as a disparaging word for a German person, but jerry-built predates that use:

The warehouses themselves which have been destroyed were of the class called “Jerry built,” which is equivalent to the term applied in Manchester to the property of building clubs.
The Guardian (London), 28 Sept. 1842

Before things were jerry-built, it seems that some things were built in the “jerry” style:

Another witness in the same case, Mr. Heighton, a house owner, who was called on the opposite side, was asked what was the meaning of the Jerry style of architecture. “Any thing that is badly built,” was the reply. “Have you any houses in Toxteth-park?” was the next question. “Yes,” said the witness. “Are any of them built in the Jerry style of architecture?” “No.” “What do you call your style?” “A sufficient and substantial style.” “And all your houses are of that order?” “I should say so.” “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.”
The Liverpool (England) Mercury, 12 Apr. 1839

The definitive proof is absent, but etymologists believe that the similarity between something being jury-rigged and something being jerry-built paved the way for our third word. The jury of jury-rigged isn’t transparent to the modern English speaker, but the rigged makes sense: after its “to fit out with rigging” meaning, rig developed other senses, including “to equip,” “to construct,” and “to put in condition or position for use.” And so it was that in the late 19th century, the word jerry-rigged sidled up to the language and asked to come inside, offering a meaning of “organized or constructed in a crude or improvised manner”:

Naturally the naval and military establishments have been potent factors in the improvement and development of so convenient a neighborhood, while the efforts of the corporation, in laying out the ground, have received great support from the Government, which, as principal landlord, has taken care that its tenants should carry out building operations in a fashion unconnected with the speculative builder and the “jerry-rigged” villa.
The Daily Telegraph (London), 17 Sept. 1890

I learned this one afternoon when something went wrong with the jerry rigged derrick we were using.
The New England Farmer (Boston, MA), 15 Mar. 1902

While some will assert that jerry-rigged is an inferior sort of word to be avoided, it is in fact fully established and has been busy in the language for more than a century, describing any number of things organized or constructed in a crude or improvised way. Jury-rigged and jerry-built are somewhat older and not generally criticized, and have the added benefit of having corresponding verb forms. Jury-rigged is the best choice when the makeshift nature of the effort is to be emphasized rather than a shoddiness that results; the one who jury-rigs is merely doing what they can with the materials available. Jerry-built is most often applied when something has been made quickly and cheaply; the one who jerry-builds something builds it badly.

Then there’s the question of whether you should call it duct tape


  1. Harper’s Notes says:

    Hack/Hacker term seems to have some of the same connotations today. Crude inelegant methods of getting something done by throwing a bunch of odd bits and things together. MacGyver-ish.

  2. Kirk says:

    Now, do the presumably derivative “n****r-rigged”, which has been floating around as a colloquialism since forever.

    There are also a bunch of other expressions with slightly different wording and implications. We used to call something “sapper-rigged” when it was an elegant, functional non-standard use of something, for an entirely unrelated purpose to its intended use.

  3. Ross says:

    Jerry and Jury sound similar enough for me ….I think one might profitably explore accents of speakers using the term..mmm not simply written etymology but also how people transferred the term orally

  4. Graham says:

    I’ve been annoyed by the sudden prevalence of “hack” and “hacking” for everything.

    When I was a kid, it meant clumsily slashing at something with a blade.

    The computer meaning, whose origin I don’t know, certainly seeped out into the mainstream sometime in the late 80s or so when I was in my late teens. So I got used to that.

    Ever since people started talking about life hacks, golf hacks, activity hacks of every kind, I have longed for the simplicity of hacking away at a tree with an axe.

    It reached an apotheosis for me when they started blathering about the Russians hacking the election, which made me think they had tapped into voting computers. No, just the metaphorical sense of short cutting something. Louise Mensch was so hysterically committed to the mere word that anyone who agreed with her and emphasized the Russians using propaganda to influence the election without using the word hacking was greeted with the digital equivalent of maniacal screeching, “No they HACKED it!”. Saw that with own eyes.

    I decided not to use hack in any sense more recent than the computer kind, after that. If only for lack of better term.

  5. Graham says:

    Actually, Harper’s Notes draws my attention to another point I hadn’t thought of.

    Hack right now retains some of that older sense, also vaguely familiar to me from the past, of just such clumsy work. Hackwork, as done by hacks. As in writing trades and others. “He’s just a hack, not a real novelist”. That sort of sentiment.

    And yet, presumably derivative of the superior intellect attributed to computer hackers, the most recent meanings of hack all have the connotation of “genius shortcut”.

    People truly are just on the razor’s edge of mutual unintelligibility.

  6. Graham says:

    I’d heard jury rigged and knew most of that etymology. The novels of CS Forester, Dudley Pope, Alexander Kent [aka Douglas Reeman], and eventually some Patrick O’Brian put stuff like that in my head. Plus the idiom was alive and well in the everyday speech of my grandfather and father, and now me.

    I had heard jerry-built somewhat less.

    The combined form jerry-rigged is wholly knew to me, despite attestation from the 19c. Interesting.

    I would have wrongly assumed it had something to do with Germans, though I can’t imagine a time when the British assumed Germans built subpar stuff.

  7. Kirk says:

    One probably derivation is left out of the above:

    From the Latin adjutare (“to aid”) via Old French ajurie (“help or relief”)

    The old “jury rig” included an entire school of what we today call “BDAR or Battle Damage Assessment and Repair”. There were jury poles, jury knots, and a bunch of other usages and specialized tools/techniques.

    Typically, there was a specific “jury rig” for a sailing ship whose rudder/steering rig was damaged. Instead of the complex pulley/rope/wheel system used by the helmsman, they would rig up an improvised system of rope cables and hawsers to tackle and eyebolts on the rudder, connecting to the rudder directly, rather than to the rudder post…

    We’re getting into nautical technology and esoterica here, though…

  8. Kirk says:

    Graham, the whole “stamp national origin” thing came out of an English back-fire during the era when Germany was rising out of its backwater status: The Brits started a campaign to “Buy British”, and began stamping “Made in England (or, Britain)” on everything, also agitating for the government to demand that all goods be marked as to national origin.

    Backfire came when the citizenry noted that the German stuff they could buy for cheaper prices was also a better value in that it was higher quality than what was made in the UK, tin toys and stuffed animals particularly. Eventually, “Made in Germany” became a hallmark of quality.

    Same trajectory as “Made in Japan”, here in the US, actually…

  9. Sam J. says:

    Learn something new every day. I had no idea “jury rig” was a thing before jerry-rigged which assumed came from German war engineering to keep something together in the field.

  10. John Dougan says:

    The terms “hack” and “hacker” as used by computer enthusiasts are foundational words that means both a lot of specific things and one hard to articulate thing.

    Many of the derivative uses are in the spirit of the word, though not all. The biggest conflict was about the application of hacker to the people who break into computer systems. The criminals took the word to describe themselves (with some justice) and the mainstream computer community considered it inappropriate (maliciousness is disqualifying), deeming the criminals to be _crackers_. Sadly, the press, being the idiots they are ignored this completely and call everyone hackers, no matter how inappropriately.

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