Jury-rigged vs. Jerry-rigged

By Maeve Maddox

A reader asks to know the difference between jury-rigged and jerry-rigged.

Of the two, the older term is jury-rigged, a nautical term dating from the days of sail.

Because they were often damaged in storms, sailing ships carried a spare mast called the jury-mast. Apart from scholarly speculation, the etymology of jury in this context is unknown.

The jury-mast was like a spare tire, to be used only in an emergency and replaced by the real thing as soon as possible. The adjective jury-rigged came to be applied to anything intended to be of temporary use. Here are some examples of the term in current usage:

Andrew Gill, had coolly waited for the weather to calm down after his vessel lost its mast and communications equipment in rough weather, and then jury-rigged a sail to get him to his destination.—SailWorld, 2012

Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.—Princeton University site.

A second expression that is earlier than jerry-rigged is jerry-built.

As with the jury in jury-rigged, the origin of the jerry in jerry-built remains a mystery.

First (1881) came the term jerry-builder:

It is unfortunately too often the habit of builders—or rather jerry builders—to use the worst possible description of bricks.

A jerry-builder was a contractor who put up shoddy houses for a quick sale. The first citation for the adjective jerry-built to describe shoddily built houses is dated 1869.

Here are two recent examples of the use of jerry-built:

In their need for access to varied sources of employment and cheap housing, immigrants were restricted to decaying or jerry-built housing.—The American Landscape, Stephen F. Mills, Routledge, 2013 

Central to nearly all the semi-abstract paintings in “With a Tug and a Hold” are what appear to be architectural structures, or fragments of the built environment: a jerry-built wood shack here, a bit of metal scaffolding there.—The Washington Post, 2012.

“Jerry-rigged” conflates “jury-rigged” with “jerry-built.”

In American usage, jerry-rigged refers to something devised or repaired with materials at hand.

Here are some examples:

Our presentation was jerry-rigged because we hadn’t been able to get the software to work correctly in time.—The Accidental Millionaire, Gary Fong, BenBella Books, 2009.

With the Afghan army also lagging in explosives experts, its members often resort to jerry-rigged tactics to locate and defuse IEDs, officials say.—The Washington Post, 2014

It was the very definition of jerry-rigged: She’d cut some slits in the back of a gel skin phone cover that would serve as credit card slots, taped a piece of cardboard on as a makeshift cover, and added a string to form a wristlet.—Huffington Post, 2014

Frustratingly, in this case, my attempt to use my iPad as a jerry-rigged solution has actually created problems I didn’t have before. —MIT Technology Review, 2012.

Although not in either the OED or Merriam-Webster, the verb to Macgyver is used with a similar meaning by some speakers:

to Macgyver: to invent useful devices from ordinary materials.

A device or mechanical solution created by Macgyvering is a Macgyverism. The words derive from the name of Angus MacGyver, a television character noted for his ability to resolve dangerous problems by non-violent means. Instead of a gun, this hero carries duct tape and a Swiss Army knife.

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4 Responses to “Jury-rigged vs. Jerry-rigged”

  • Eric Nilsson

    There’s a possibility that the “jerry” is a corruption of the word “German.” From what I read man years ago, the British used “Gerry cans” in the desert while fighting Rommel, probably using materiel from disabled or destroyed vehicles. That may be an urbane legend (or urban), but that’s what I read.

  • venqax

    It is true that Gerry (Jerry) is a British term for German and I think the cans referred to were, literally, cans for fuel or water taken from German military vehicles. But I think the term “jerry-built” pre-dates that use of g/jerry by quite a lot.

  • AnWulf

    Yes, there is the jerrycan, but as venqax points out, it came well after jerry-built.

    Before jerry-built, there was jerry-sneak … a worthless man, also a hen-peckt man. This seems to come from a play, “Mayor of Garratt” written in the 1700s. Tho the term jerry-sneak was still found in the 1800s in the US.

  • Susan Iverson Downey

    Very interesting to learn of legitimacy of both phrases & of the differences in connotation between the two. I was born in 1949 & was told by my dad that jerry-rigging was the correct term. I thought jury-rigging was incorrect. I stand corrected. My father said that jerry-rigging referred to rough, cobbled-together repairs German soldiers made to vehicles/equipment during the world war(s). He said allied soldiers came across these jerry -rigged items in the field, especially after the turning points in the wars. German troops had been cut off from there supply lines & had to make due.

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