Finding Jerry in all the wrong places

As you may know, state officials nationwide are expecting the US Census Bureau to drop a bomb this month, telling them how much their respective populations have shifted in the past decade. In the ensuing war of words over the shape of new voting districts, some adjectival j's and g's - I'm thinking "jerry-rigged," "jury-rigged," "jerry-built," "gerrymander" - will be thrown around like hand grenades. Here is a quick review on the use of these explosives:

If you want to describe some opponents' mapmaking as "jerry-rigged," you should resist the temptation, even though others certainly won't. For example, Pennsylvania Congressman Curt Weldon (R) has issued a press release in which he lambastes a "jerry-rigged" plan to employ statistical sampling to compensate for flaws in Uncle Sam's decennial count.

"Jerry-rigged" is not even listed in standard dictionaries. The congressman might instead have characterized the statistical-sampling plan as "jury-

rigged," a nautical term for something quickly assembled for emergency or temporary use. (A jury mast, for example, is a product of jury-rigging.) Anne Soukhanov, a lexicographer and editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary, calls "jerry-rigged" a "mishearing [of jury-rigged] that has resulted in a misspelling."

In his choice of "jerry-rigged," Mr. Weldon is far from alone, however; in common parlance, its use is widespread. In the past 20 years, it has found its way into the Monitor's pages 16 times - a dozen of those occurrences after 1990. (I leave it to you, gentle reader, to decide whether these numbers indicate declining editorial vigilance, growing public acceptance of this term, or a combination of the two.)

"Jerry-built" and "gerrymandered" are other epithets that may be judiciously employed to describe apparently disastrous redistricting plans. The former refers to something cheaply or carelessly constructed. The latter refers to the artificial shaping of voting districts, usually to favor candidates of the legislative party or parties in power, although districts that would favor candidates from certain ethnic or racial groups can also be gerrymandered.

The term was coined in 1812 to describe the redistricting efforts of then-Gov. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts. Gerry, a distinguished Founding Father, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, a US congressman, and James Madison's vice president in 1813-14. Alas, Gerry (pronounced Gary) may be best known today for the salamander shape he gave to a certain Massachusetts voting district to help his party maintain control - hence the term "gerrymander" (Gerry + mander, now pronounced "jerrymander").

There are many other interesting perils that result from confusing j's, and g's - including a gaffe that made its way into the Monitor recently: substituting the phrase "the gig is up" for "the jig is up." The gig is up for Bill Clinton, of course, but that is a different matter.

Send language questions to Lance Carden, the copy and style editor, at turnsofphrase@csps.com or One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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