Jury-rigged, jerry-built: Maybe a problem?

Two usefully distinct terms show signs of blending together.

As I was reading a touching essay that ran in The Home Forum a couple of weeks ago, about four boys from the 'burbs of New York who in November 1963 drove overnight to Washington for President Kennedy's funeral, my eye was caught by a particular term. (There are times I can get my inner copy editor to shut up and just let me read, but this wasn't one of them.)

The idiom was jury-rig, and it was what one of the boys had to do to their car's "hanging muffler." The phrase means "to erect, construct, or arrange in a makeshift fashion," to cite Merriam-Webster Online.

The word had popped up the week before in The New York Times Magazine article, "The Sleep-Industrial Complex," all about the mattress and pharmaceutical industries. The piece included a reference to a man who was such an enthusiast for Sleep Number Beds that he "jury-rigged something similar for his bulldog." On the subject of exactly how the dog expressed its preference for a particular Sleep Number, the author was silent.

Jury-rigging is a term with nautical origins. "Rig" is one of those little words so short that it contains nearly infinite meanings (an early form of nanotechnology). One of its meanings is "the arrangement of masts, sails, etc., on a vessel."

In the days of the tall ships, when a vessel on the high seas lost a mast in a storm or a battle, the ship's carpenter would fashion what was known as a jury mast from spare parts down in the hold. Jury mast goes back to 1616. And by the late 18th century, jury-rig was the verb for outfitting a ship with an emergency makeshift mast. Over time the concept was extended to include other kinds of improvisations, as with the aforesaid wonky muffler.

Jury-rigged has a somewhat less respectable fraternal twin with which it is often confused: jerry-built. "Built unsubstantially of bad materials; built to sell but not last," is how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines jerry-built. Where jury-rigged is all ingenuity and resourcefulness, often under emergency conditions – think Tom Hanks and his fellow astronauts trying to get back from the moon in the movie "Apollo 13" – jerry-built is about cutting corners and doing things on the cheap.

When The Boston Phoenix reviewed the Jerry Seinfeld "Bee Movie" under the simple headline "JERRY-BUILT," it was clearly not a compliment.

The origins of both jury-rigged and jerry-built are sketchy, as befits terms that refer to forms of improvisation, I suppose.

The OED has this to say about jury mast: "Origin unknown." There has been some speculation that "jury" is an abbreviation of "injury," but Oxford says, ixnay, "No supporting evidence has been found."

According to Mark Israel of the alt.english.usage newsgroup, however, recent dictionaries trace the nautical jury to the Old French ajurie, meaning "help or relief," from the Latin adiutare, "to aid."

Jerry-built is more recent – first seen in print in 1869, according to the OED. But no one knows for sure who "Jerry" was. A building firm in the Merseyside region of England is the source of the term, according to one theory. Mr. Israel calls this and other speculation "fanciful."

Sometimes language changes when two terms that have been used interchangeably over much of their history begin to take on distinct meanings, dividing the semantic territory, so to speak. In the case of jury-rigged and jerry-built, though, we have two usefully distinct terms that are beginning to blend.

I just did a Google News search of "jury-rigged" and got 37 hits. "Jerry-built" brought up 10 – but "jerry-rigged" 21, including an item from Scientific American about the repair done last month on the International Space Station's solar-panel array.

"Houston, we've solved the problem," was the triumphant headline. But the repair was described as being done with "jerry-rigged fasteners."

Houston, maybe we still have a problem.

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