I Said Jerry Rig

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All I did was ask him if he wanted me to jerry rig his shower curtain, but he looked at me like I’d asked him something really inappropriate. It’s not the first time I’ve gotten confused or blank looks when I’ve used the term “jerry rig”, which is a shame, because I’m a very good jerry rigger.

I can fashion a rain jacket out of a cereal box or repair my car engine with a paperclip and a piece of used chewing gum. That’s what jerry rigging is, making makeshift repairs or creating contraptions out of whatever materials you have on hand. MacGyver was also a very good jerry rigger.

The origins of jerry rigging are debated. The term could could be a mutation of jury rigging, which in today’s lexicon, can be used with jerry rigging interchangeably. Jury rig has roots as a nautical term, referring to the replacement mast and yards used in an emergency. The term has been used since at least 1788. It is probable that jury comes from the Old French, “ajurie”, meaning relief or help.

Another theory is that the term jerry rigging is separate from jury rigging and actually comes from World War II. Apparently, American troops adopted the term to describe machines that were repaired with salvaged parts, left behind by retreating German soldiers (jerry being a pejorative term for Germans).

In any case, you should use it, to make MacGyver proud or just to see the looks on people’s faces.

Should you need inspiration, here are a few examples of jerry rigging as demonstrated by Angus MacGyver, fictional star of the action/adventure series, Macgyver:

  • Plug a sulfuric acid leak with chocolate
  • Fix a water pump with two half dollars
  • Make a telescope out of a newspaper and a magnifying glass

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29 thoughts on “I Said Jerry Rig”

  1. I love this phrase and am glad to have it brought to my attention because I’ve heard it but never used it.

    Last night, my daughter was making holiday sweets to bring to school today and accidentally used bitter, unsweetened chocolate for the fruit dip. I told her she could salvage the project by sprinkling on powdered sugar. Do you think we can say she jerry rigged the cherries?

    Thanks for a fun read.

  2. The first and only person I know who used this term was my husband. He was a recent Viet Nam vet when I met him in college. He complained about my dad’s plumbing job in our house, saying he “jerry-rigs” everything instead of buying new parts. My husband’s job in the Navy was keeping airplanes running and many times they would savage parts from one plane to use on another. Other strange terms: going south, jo-ball, come again.

  3. OK, I’m embarrassed. I meant to say “they would SALVAGE parts” not “savage parts.” However, the error may be more accurate than the correction!?

  4. In my research, the term jerry rig is a confusion of the term jury rig with the term jerry built. Jury rig is the proper term. In modern parlance it means an emergency or temporary repair. Jerry built means something has been constructed either with poor materials or poor skills and perhaps both. Getting things wrong, if it occurs often enough, will put any mistake in the English language on the books and legitimize it. I’m not sure this is always a good thing. I would never use the term jerry rig. It’s just plain wrong.

  5. In the US, at least, “jury rig” can have an entirely different connotation.

    People go to jail for rigging a jury.

  6. I’ve never seen jerry-rig before, except when people meant jury rig. I have seen jerry-built, which is intended as a slur as much as calling someone a welsher.

  7. My mom calls it jimmy-rigging, not jerry-rigging, but meaning the same thing.. but, googling it shows that while both meaning the same thing, the jimmy-rig is more likely to fail whereas the jerry-rig is not. I think my mom uses without thinking if it’s going to fail or not, though.

  8. I agree with mrburkemath: jerry-built (= poorly constructed) and jury-rig (= to make repairs with the materials at hand) are time-tested and widely recognized terms — jerry rig must be a confused mish-mash of these two. But that’s how language develops, isn’t it? It ain’t always logical or based on clear etymology.

  9. I was always taught that “gerry” or “jerry” rig was unacceptable term, as bad as using the n-word with rig. I later began to wonder why any word was needed in front of rig. “I rigged the shower curtain.” Do I need to describe the type of rigging?

  10. Jerry was a term used to refer to German soldiers. It was never unacceptable. Now it’s out of fashion. Jerry built is not an unacceptable term but it is an unacceptable condition.

  11. Some more on derivations.

    “Jerry rig” is likely a variant of “jerry built” See the following.

    The phrase has been around since at least 1869, when it was defined in the Lonsdale Glossary:

    “Jerry-built, slightly, or unsubstantially built.”

    By 1901, the term began to be used figuratively – a sure sign of acceptance into the general language. For example, The Daily Chronicle, in August that year printed this opinion:

    “In an age of jerry-built books it is refreshing to come across a volume that has taken forty years to compile.”

    The derivation is unknown

  12. I have also heard that “jerry-built” may be based on the name “Jericho,” the walls of which fell down after the trumpet blast.

    Alternatively, I have heard that it was used to describe the rigging of an election through the use of gerrymandering an electoral district in favor of the incumbent.

  13. I was dismayed to see a post on proper usage of a phrase that is not kosher. Who is vetting these guest posts? Yes, it’s JURY-rigged.

  14. I don’t believe the article addressed the issue of kosherness. It is a common phrase that is heard regularly and the article seemed to be concerned only with its origin.

    What I have seen about the questionable origin of the term suggests that it was used long before “Jerry” (Gerry) was a pejorative term for Germans and did not relate in any way to the Germans. No doubt, during WWII it was used in that way, in much the same way that pejorative terms were applied to the Japanese and anyone else we at war with at the time.

    The language is what it is. If we go around picking and choosing what parts of the language can be discussed and which parts are off limits, we will have little to talk about.

  15. Wow! I was just having this very conversation with my Ph.D. linguist friend about a month ago. And here’s a posting about the roots of this word a month later.

    Great to know the differences, thanks! Now I know the original term “Jury Rig” comes from nautical periods of the 17th/18th century. And that “Jimmy Built” is something put together with used parts. Of course, as always, language will be modified by cultural influences, so we have “Gerry Rig” during WWII as a slant on Germans. Who BTW are great builders. My heritage 🙂

    In the end I agree with the woman who said “why can’t it just be rigged?” I agree. Why do we have to have a Jimmy, Jury, or Gerry. Rigged is rigged!

    And p.s. No I don’t think your daughter can use the term for her cute, although makeshift, “fruit dip”. The cherries were fine before being dipped. Just my humble opinion. 🙂

  16. I have just discovered this site and have been looking at some of the various posts. It is interesting to see the way language changes through usage, dialect and location.
    From the point of view of a resident of England, I have always known these terms as Jury Rigged & Jerry Built, with the former meaning make do and mend and the latter, badly built.
    As for the point of view – “why can’t it just be rigged?” – surely this could mean underhand? 🙂

  17. Hi, I had the same reaction when I said this word to some german people in a meeting. They became quite angry and wouldn’t speak to me afterwards. Apparently, the word “jerry” is a bad word. But I had no idea. I call English people “brits” and they don’t get mad. The english call me “yank” but it doesn’t bother me (in fact I quite like it). However, I do know that there are other words that are very offensive (the “j” word for japanese people for example). So, maybe “jerry” is like that?

  18. Funny stuff. My dad and a lot of the “old timers” use the term Gerry (or Jerry) rigged ALL the time, basically meaning doing whatever it takes to get something working/fixed albeit not the most cosmetic (think duct tape here).

    Jury rig always meant meddling with the court and it’s jury, and was almost never used.

    Had no idea it could be construed as a derogatory comment, except to point out that something might be an ugly, temporary fix.

  19. Jury Tampering is an illegal action done by lawyers and is a felony in the US courts. Rigging the Jury is not a term used in the legal profession, but a conflation of Jury Tampering and Jury Rigged. Thus speaks multiple lawyers on the topic in a recent discussion.

    Jury Rigged is a term coming from rigging the Jury Mast, a term which is completely etymologically unrelated to the kind of Jury that decides on a court case. Many sailors could confirm this. This is a term with at least 200 years behind it.

    Jerry Built, which is also several hundred years old, means made with shoddy materials or workmanship. It likely was the term used during the war to refer derogatorily to the German manufacture, particularly since it was already in common parlance with only a difference in spelling (J or G) to easily and readily apply to the Germans.

    And you can’t just say “I rigged it” because rigging means securing and tying up with ropes or steel cable or other methods – something properly rigged is done by professionals using very specific techniques and tools. Jury-rigged is pretty much the opposite – a stop-gap measure using creative techniques and unusual equipment to fix something in the moment. Like pretty much everything MacGyver did on the show. The other difference is Jury-rig means get it to work, while Rig means get it up in the air. So you can Jury-Rig an engine to make it run – if you Rig an engine, it implies you’re hanging it from something, not getting it to work.

    As someone who works with an entire class of professionals called “Riggers” whose job involves extensive amounts of math and physics and specialized tools and equipment, I think the suggestion that Jury-Rig and Rig are interchangeable would probably not sit well with professional Riggers. That’s kind of like saying performing surgery is the same thing as duct-taping a cut. These are the guys who hang heavy things from cranes and ceilings over your head, and it’s a very technical job.

  20. Please – you’re hanging stuff from ropes. It’s not rocket science. You sound overly defensive of the rigging profession – although I’m assuming its because in general Riggers can be unappreciated and overlooked since they’re backstage and never get the thanks they deserve for actually running the show. Rigging is a decent profession but come on, who are you trying to kid here – you don’t need years and years of schooling that are necessary for scientific, academic, or other more intellectual professions.

  21. I’d avoid “jerry rig” and use either “jury rig” or “jerry built” for two reasons: “jerry rig” doesn’t have a very clear meaning (are you saying you improvised it, you did a shoddy job or both) and it gives me the impression of sloppy language (mixing up two terms accidentally). I realize language changes all the time but I try avoid using terms that are LESS clear than already existing terms and don’t add anything other than confusion. MacGyver, on the other hand, seems pretty easy to understand (at least in my social circle).

  22. It has been ‘jury rigged’ my entire life. Jerry rigged is just jury rigged with a New England accent. Unfortunately, the term has morphed into ‘jerry’. The German connection is pure imagination . . .

  23. The proper term is “jury rig.” “Jerry rig” is either a derivation of “jerry-built” or, more likely, just a lot of people hearing it incorrectly and taking their best guess at spelling, similar to how many people think “turrent” is a real word (when they mean to say “turret”).

    No one should hear “jerry rig” and not know what you’re talking about, but those who know the real term might look at you with a little bit of exasperation.

  24. Jerry-rigged and Jury-rigged are two separate words and terms.

    Jerry-rigged or Jerry-Rigging refers to crudely assembled or patched up. It came from World War 2 as the allies were often scavenging German parts left behind after the German retreat.

    Jerry was a derogatory term used to refer to Germans. Especially used by the British as they claimed the German helmet looked like a chamber pot (aka a Jerry).

    Jerry-rigged or Jerry-rigging is still a popular term used in England to this day.

  25. People offended by “jerry-rigged” may have grown up in an area where “n****r-rigged” was more common at one time and its usage dwindled as “jerry-rigged” became more common. Also, to a lesser probability of the reason someone might be offended, “jerry” is phonetically identical to “Jheri” in “Jheri curls”, which is associated with the same demographic as the more offensive phrase. Notwithstanding the true etymology of the phrase, or your good character, some people that hear you say Jerry-rigged may simply believe you’re being racially insensitive, Ultimately, your understanding of the phrase has no influence on how the listener perceives it.

  26. Yeah, my dad just replied upon my repeating the description my supervisor gave (Jerry-rigged) of a water-heater fix at work, “That’s a racist remark if I ever heard one”.

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