So what’s wrong with a little rigging?

A look at the many meanings of a useful little word – and those of its evil twin.

Alex Brandon/AP
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally on Nov. 7, 2016 in Leesburg, Va.

We have heard a great deal about “rigging” this political season, from both the left and the right. But it turns out that there’s good rigging and there’s bad rigging.

To rig means, among other things, to “prepare (a sailing ship or boat) for going to sea,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. Specifically it means “to set up the sails and rigging of (a sailing vessel).”

Rigging, the noun, refers to the action of making such preparation, and also, as a concrete noun, the “ropes, chains, wires, and associated fittings used to support and operate a vessel’s masts, sails, derricks, booms, etc.” 

Rig is such a sturdy little English word: three letters, one syllable, a short vowel, and a hard “g.” 

But the word’s origin is really “unknown,” Oxford says, even though
“[m]any suggestions have been made” for its origin.

Let’s call this the “nautical” rig, noun and verb, although the sense has been extended to cover other kinds of “setups” – in particular, oil rigs and large trucks. 

The term is also used broadly to mean a “set of equipment used for a particular activity,” as the Macmillan dictionary has it, citing an example, “a lighting rig.” 

But there’s another rig, a verb, likewise of “unknown origin,” that refers to various efforts to manipulate or “fix” something – such as stock prices or elections.

“Nautical” rig dates to the early 1500s. “Manipulative” rig goes back to the 1640s, when a rig was a fraudulent scheme or swindle. 

A century later, the word had become a verb.

Oxford quotes a newspaper from 1841: “The Tea men ... have been merrily rigging the market, so much that the prices have gone up about 4d. per lb.” 

And The Baltimore Sun had this in 1935: “The way the ‘election’ was rigged made an opposing farmer seem a sap.” (Note the scare quotes around “election.”)

A special kind of nautical rigging deserves mention here: jury rigging. It sounds like an indictable offense, doesn’t it? Another term for jury tampering?

The jury in a courtroom is a group of people who have been “sworn” (ultimately from the Latin iurare) to “determine the facts and truth of a case or charge submitted to them and render a verdict,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary reminds us. 

But there’s a nautical term, jury mast, meaning, according to Oxford, “A temporary mast put up in place of one that has been broken or carried away.” 

The “mast” part is clear; whence the “jury”? 

Alas, it’s another in our catalog of “origin unknown.” Oxford mentions and then dismisses the suggestion that “it may have been short for injury-mast,” since “no supporting evidence has been found.”

The Online Etymology Dictionary suggests, “Perhaps it is ultimately from Old French ajurie, ‘help, relief,’ from Latin adjutare.” 

Whatever its origin, this “jury” has been incorporated in terms to describe all kinds of inspired ad hockery at sea, including improvised rigging – jury rigging. 

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