If you’ve ever duct-taped a side mirror back onto a car or draped a blanket over some chairs for a makeshift tent, you’ve likely boasted about your jerry-rigging skills. But your talent for on-the-spot construction may have surpassed your vocabulary prowess, as the term is actually jury-rigged, not jerry-rigged. (Unless your name is Jerry and you’ve rigged it up; in which case, carry on.) Learn how you’ve gotten it wrong all these years — and whether or not jerry-rigged is a World War I-era insult.
Jury-rigging originated as a nautical term for rigging up a temporary solution on a ship. It comes from the related terms jury-mast and jury-sail, both of which refer to quick fixes that keep a boat afloat until they can be properly repaired. In everyday use, jury-rigging means “something fixed or made with the materials you have on hand.”
You can use jury-rig as a verb to describe the process of creating a makeshift solution. For example:
- My TV remote broke, so I jury-rigged it with masking tape and a paperclip.
- Try jury-rigging the garage door until we can get it repaired.
- Since Tina couldn’t afford to get her car fixed, she jury-rigged the fender back on with bungee cords.
Jury-rigged also functions as an adjective:
- The jury-rigged TV remote worked so well that we never got a new one.
- I can’t believe that the jury-rigged garage door fell on your car.
- Tina got a traffic ticket when her jury-rigged fender fell off on the freeway.
At first glance, jury-rigging looks like a legal word for illegally influencing a jury’s verdict. But the jury in jury-rigged comes from the Old French ajurie, meaning “to help,” unlike the legal jury (from the Old French juree, meaning “swear”). Additionally, rigging has a literal meaning in jury-rigging — “to bind with ropes” — not a figurative meaning as in when you’d rig (cheat) a contest or a result.
Fans of the show MacGyver know how well the multi-tasking secret agent can get himself out of a jam. Most of the time, MacGyver jury-rigs a brilliant invention using only the materials at his fingertips (and he’s so famous for it that MacGyvering has become a synonym for jury-rigging in recent years). While you may not be a MacGyver-level jury-rigger, you’ve probably had your share of makeshift inventions, and it’s good to know what to call them.
If you’re still pretty sure that it’s jerry-rigged, not jury-rigged, others agree with you, as the terms are used almost interchangeably. While jerry-rigged still isn’t the correct term, jerry does appear in another construction-related phrase: jerry-built, meaning “poorly made.” Something that was jury-rigged in a sloppy way can, therefore, be jerry-built.
Whether you’ve used the adjective jerry-built in the past or you’ve just learned it and want to use it ASAP, make sure you’re using it correctly. For example:
- Be careful on those stairs — they look sort of jerry-built.
- The construction company tore down the original jerry-built project and replaced it with a high-quality building.
- You’ve jury-rigged your bicycle so much that it’s looking pretty jerry-built.
Jerry-built first appeared in English writing in the 19th century, but as it likely originated in slang, no one knows where the “jerry” part comes from. Theories range from the broken walls of Jericho to a builder named Jerry with a bad reputation, but in the end, Jerry is building things badly, not jury-rigging things successfully.
One popular origin story for jerry-built is that it’s a pejorative for “German.” During World War I, British soldiers frequently referred to Germans as “Gerry” or “Jerry,” shortening German (much like how soldiers in Vietnam referred to the Viet Cong as “Charlie”). Could jerry-built actually be an insulting word for German workmanship?
The answer is: Not likely. Jerry-built appeared in print decades before the beginning of World War I, where the first uses of “Jerry” as a nickname for German soldiers came about. So if you’ve avoided using jerry-built for fear of insult those of German heritage, fear not — it’s much older than the insult.
There’s no need for makeshift sentences when you have a strong vocabulary. Ensure that your writing isn’t jerry-built when you’re referencing your cool new (strung-together and temporary) invention by using jury-rigged, not jerry-rigged.