Caught in the rigging.
Dear Word Detective: I’m curious about the word “jerryrig,” as in to make do with materials on hand. I recently saw it spelled “juryrig,” but the context seemed to be the same. Is the correct spelling “jerry” or “jury” and what is the origin of the word? What, if anything, does it have to do with a rigged jury? — Jill Fitzpatrick.
Not much, if anything. Then again, some of the juries running around out there these days could probably do with a little jury-rigging, perhaps a little money under the table for paying attention to the simple facts of the case. Between turning certain people loose in the face of mountains of evidence and fining other folks millions of dollars for lying on their job applications, juries are rather rapidly reaching a level of credibility formerly attained only by UFOlogists and mail-order psychics.
In any case, the “jury-rig” (it is usually hyphenated) you’re asking about has nothing whatever to do with juries in the judicial sense. “Jury” was originally a naval term for any makeshift contrivance substituting for the real thing in an emergency, most commonly found in the term “jury-mast,” a temporary mast constructed in place of one that had been broken. There’s some debate about where the word “jury” in this sense came from, with the leading (but unverified) theory being that it was short for “injury.”
To say that something is “jerryrigged” is to mix idioms a bit, because the proper term is “jerrybuilt.” A “jerrybuilder,” a term dating to 19th-century England, was originally a house builder who constructed flimsy homes from inferior materials. The “jerry” in the term may have been a real person known for the practice, or may be a mangled form of “jury,” as in “jury-rigged.” I tend to think that “jerrybuilt” arose separately from “jury-rig” simply because their senses are slightly different. Something that is “jury-rigged” is concocted on the spur of the moment to meet an emergency, but something “jerrybuilt” is deliberately constructed of inferior materials to turn a quick buck.