Dictionary

Last week, I was talking with a friend about something that had been put together in a slapdash fashion, and I opened my mouth to say the word “jury-rigged,” but then I panicked and thought maybe that wasn’t right so I said “jerry-rigged” instead.

My friend looked at me quizzically and said, “Don’t you mean ‘jury-rigged?’”

I don’t know what I mean.

There followed a brief debate about whether it was “jury-rigged” as in “rigged jury,” or “jerry-rigged” as in “gerrymandered,” but neither of us knew for sure.

I turned to Merriam-Webster for some answers.

The dictionary folks said that both “jury-rigged” and “jerry-rigged” were correct, although it gave a slight edge to “jury-rigged” because it’s been in use longer.

Ha! So I was right! My friend was just slightly more right.

Merriam-Webster explained that “jury-rigged” dates back to the 1700s, and that “jury” has nothing to do with courtrooms. “Jury” comes from an old Middle English word “jory,” meaning “makeshift.” “Rig” is another old Middle English word referring to the ropes and whatnot on a boat. So if you were jury-rigging something in the 1700s, you were a sailor improvising a repair to your boat.

The word “jerry” didn’t pop up for another 150 years, when “jerry-built” was used to describe poorly made houses. “The origin of this word is unknown,” according to Merriam-Webster, “though there is plenty of speculation that it’s from some poor slob named Jerry.”

(Who says grammar nerds don’t have a sense of humor?)

Within the next few decades, “jury-rigged” had morphed into “jerry-rigged.”

Merriam-Webster went on to say that there was a THIRD version of this phrase — “jimmy-rigged” — that was also correct.

Jimmy-rigged? I’ve never heard anybody say “jimmy-rigged.” Maybe Jimmy is a friend of Jerry’s.

I had a follow-up question. Does the courtroom version of the word “jury” also mean “put together in a slapdash fashion”? Because that is not comforting.

Merriam-Webster said no. The “jury” in “jury-rigged” comes from the Middle English word “jory,” while the “jury” in the courtroom comes from the Middle English word “jure,” which means “swear.”

I have done plenty of swearing whenever I have to jury-rig something.

I had another follow-up question. Is “jerry-rigged” related to “gerrymandered”? Because “gerrymandered” means to put together a voting district in a slapdash fashion.

Once again, Merriam-Webster said no. (The dictionary can be such a killjoy sometimes.)

The word “gerrymandered” came into use in 1812 after the governor of Massachusetts, Elbridge Gerry, approved a voting district that was drawn purely for political advantage. The new district looked kind of like a salamander. “Gerry” plus “salamander” equals “gerrymander.”

I think we found the poor slob named Gerry.

Lisa Davis is Features Editor of The Anniston Star. Contact her at 256-235-3555 or ldavis@annistonstar.com.

Features Editor Lisa Davis: 256-235-3555.

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