We talked about "jury-rigged" a few months ago, and everybody wanted to know about "jerry-built," so here you go!
If you want to describe something that’s been patched together quickly, you could say it’s been “jury-rigged.”
But some people would say it’s been “jerry-built.”
Which is correct?
Turns out, they both are. But these similar terms have different origins—and different meanings.
Let’s take a look. We’ll start with “jury-rigged.”
‘Jury-rigged’ Means Made on the Fly
If something’s been jury-rigged, it’s been built in a makeshift fashion. The work’s not shoddy—it’s just been improvised, with whatever materials were at hand. As Grammar Girl reader Max Crittenden puts it, “jury-rigged” means “creatively repaired under trying circumstances.”
The “jury” in “jury-rigged” means “temporary,” and it might come from Old French or Latin words that meant “help” or “aid.” For example, sailors refer to a jury mast—a temporary mast put up on a sailing vessel. A wooden leg used to be called a “jury-leg.” And a hastily prepared meal was called a “jury-meal.”
Now let’s look at “jerry-built.”
‘Jerry-built’ Means Made Shoddily
This term has a similar meaning, but it’s not quite the same.
Something “jerry-rigged” is cheap and flimsy. “Jerry-builders” aren’t trying to do the best job they can with the resources they have. They’re building something shoddy and hoping no one notices.
Some people think “jerry” refers to the World War I nickname for Germans. But the term is much older.
Jerry-built can first be found in a dictionary from 1869. Its definition is “slightly or unsubstantially built.”
And “jerry” was a slang term that meant “disreputable.” For example, the Oxford English Dictionary lists these zingers:
- jerry-mumble and jerrycummumble—to shake or tumble about
- jerry-shop—a low beer house
- jerry-sneak—a mean, sneaking fellow, or a hen-pecked husband.
These terms all existed before “jerry-built” was first recorded.
If you want to dig really deep, you’ll find an 1897 dictionary that cites the terms “jerry-shop,” an “unlicensed public-house with a back door entrance”; and jerry-builder, “a cheap and inferior builder who runs up those miserable, showy-looking tenements, neither air-proof nor water-proof.”
The author suggests that “jerry” may be derived from the gypsy word “jerr” or “jir,” or “from the same root we have the Gaelic ‘jerie,’ pronounced ‘jarey,’ behind; [and] the French “derrière.” The Gaelic word also signifies wretched, miserable, in which sense it is strictly applicable to the ‘jerry-builder,’ and to the contemptible characters popularly known as ‘jerry-sneaks.’”
Wow. “Jerry” was really an unpleasant term.
So, there’s your tidbit for today: “Jury-rigged” and “jerry-built” are both real terms—but with different derivations and different meanings. Here’s what to know:
- Use “jury-rigged” when something was built impromptu, using any materials at hand. and
- Use “jerry-built” when something has a shoddy, careless construction.
And if you mix the two together and say “jerry-rigged” … you won’t be alone. That cross-pollination has been in use since the 1940s and will likely continue.
Image courtesy of Shutterstock.
Peacock, Robert Backhouse; J. C. Atkinson. A Glossary of the Dialect of the Hundred of Lonsdale, North and South of the Sands, in the County of Lancaster, Asher & Co., 1869.
Barrere, Albert, and Charles G. Leland. A Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant Embracing English, American, and Anglo-Indian Slang, Pidgin English, Gypsies’ Jargon, and Other Irregular Phraseology. Vol. 1 A–K. George Bell & Sons, 1897.
Brians, Paul. Jerry-built/jury-rigged. Common Errors in English Usage, 3rd ed. William, James & Co., 2013
Dent, Susie. Jerry; jerry-built; jury mast. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 19th ed. Chambers Harrap, 2012.