Monday, March 12, 2012


I am not really even sure how to spell it, but since a lot of my life seems to be put together that way these days, I thought I'd give this one a shot.

What do you think of when you hear the word jerryrigged? I think of something that's made to work by putting things together in a roundabout and random assemblage sort of way. Using things for purposes they weren't originally intended for. And all a little dicey and on the verge of not working at all. I don't mind a little jerryrigging in my life--a lot of the way we lived in my childhood was kind of like that and it wasn't terrible, but there is a way that when you're living on  approximate fixes that things can get to be a little draining. Right now the cable box for my TV doesn't work the way it should, so I only get certain channels. I can watch some things on my computer, but not everything. And I have to balance the TV on a storage box because it works better than the previous little TV that could balance on the broken chair.

And don't get me started on the new computer system at work and the little fixes need to get the new system to do what the old system (the legacy system) did so easily before...

I have to think I was a sailor in some past life as so many of my terms here end up being nautical in one way or another. Jerry-rigged is actually originally "jury-rigged" and I guess I have heard that term, but even reading it now, I think of rigged juries so perhaps that's why this variant grew up. ('Jiggering' also leads back to this term.) The online sources posit that it was perhaps influenced by 'jerry-built' which definitely has a sense of 'defective' from at least 1869. The thought is that 'jerry' is from the male name, and there is another example in 'jerry-sneak', a sneaking fellow, a henpecked husband, but that one which had it's day in the 19th century has come and gone.

So why nautical? Because jury-rig has to do with using a temporary 'jury-mast' as a replacement for a regular mast when things go bad. As Wikipedia has it, although ships carried a lot spare parts, it wasn't really convenient to carry around something as cumbersome as a spare mast, so improvisations were in order. The sailors might use a top mast, a boom, switch out foremast with a mizzenmast, or use a bowsprit. All of these options were weaker than the mast they replaced, but would do in a pinch. Or it was hoped they would.

The etymology on jury-rigged is a bit open ended. It could come from the the Old French ajurie, which means help or relief; it could also be from joury mast, which basically means 'mast for a day', from the French jour, day. Or it could come from the sense of 'injury'. They all seem pretty plausible to me. Maybe the  different senses acted upon each other to strengthen the word.

If all this is bit less than vivid, here is an account of what it means to sail with a jury mast.

However, despite my naval past life, I must bring this back to the present. What's in a name? Jerry-rigged is a bit pejorative when all is said and done. But as they say, reframe it. Another slang term is to "Macgyver it". As anyone with an active TV life knows, this comes from the old television show MacGyver, whose lead character was always improvising with ordinary objects to do incredible things. I have to admit that I was out of the loop when this show was at its peak, but I will recommend Burn Notice to the MacGyvers among you. I love the show, but I don't really learn a whole lot from it. I have a feeling that in that past life I probably had to walk the plank, as my own MacGyvering leaves a lot to be desired.


  1. I always connect jerry-rigged with gerrymandered...

  2. I thought there might be a connection too, but didn't get around to looking into it. I'm guessing not, but maybe that would be a good word to take up next.

  3. well well well...and here is me thinking that it had something to do with the pejorative term used for the germans during the wars, the 'jerries',meaning that it could not be trusted...yes, a very rash generalisation was made by our forebears, but i figure that to dehumanise the enemy is the best way to maximise the kill-count as most philosophers of things military agree, but i was way off.
    I like your research...
    I know that i used it as slang in Oz for realising an unknown thing finally, as in 'i finally jerried to the fact that he was trying to dupe me in the high stakes poker game i was attending'....
    there ya go as my grampaw used to say..but thats another story :)

    1. Dan, it crossed my mind that it might have something to do with that old war name for the Germans, which as pejoratives go, really isn't too bad. But I was glad it didn't. I like your slang use but I have to say after all the uses that his name has been put to--poor Jerry!

    2. Although actually in your sense, I guess it's a compliment.

    3. yeah but i do think poor old tom really does get left out of this particular dialogue and would honestly and in all fairness like to balance that parity a bit more in his favour...hows that for left of field?

    4. Dan, now I am going to have to think of pejorative expressions using the name Tom.

      Off the top of my head, it won't be easy.