Dear Donald Trump: ‘Rigged’ has other meanings, too

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Donald Trump says everything is “rigged.” The election, the primaries, the FBI, the whole “system” is “rigged” against him, he has said, and many of his followers believe it as well.

We’re a language column, not a political one, so we are not discussing all that “rigging,” tempting though that might be. Instead, we’re looking at the word “rig” itself.

Context, we are fond of saying, is important. Think of the images evoked by these two sentences:

“The captain called for the crew to rig the ship.”

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“The candidate called for followers to rig the election.”

Same word, but very different meanings.

“Rig” has so many meanings that its context is essential. “He drives a big rig” probably refers to a truck (though see below for an alternative, dirty meaning); in a fishing context, the “rig” might be the rod and reel.

Related: Election results: Here’s what to expect and when

You’ve probably never heard of some of its definitions.

As a noun, the earliest use of “rig” referred to a spine, as of a human, animal, or the horizontal piece of wood from which the sides of a roof sloped. Its origin, circa 1300, is “ridge,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Around 1475, the OED says, a “rig” was an incompletely castrated animal. That may have led to a 16th-century usage of a “rig” to mean a prostitute or wanton woman, but it’s probably not related to a 20th-century slang use of “rig” to mean penis. Sex has a way of getting into everything …

It wasn’t until the late 1500s that “rig” took on its nautical term, meaning the configuration of sails and masts on a ship, the OED says; the noun grew out of the verb “to rig” a little earlier, meaning to make an army or navy ready for battle. It took almost 300 more years for “rig” to be applied to any sort of apparatus, be it horse and buggy, a ham radio, an oil well, etc.

Around 1565, the verb “rig” meant “to make a thorough search of a place, receptacle, etc.”; a little later, it picked up the meaning to steal property from someone. (A 1629 citation for “rig” in the usage to “strip (a person) of something” speaks of chambermaids who have been “rigd of their maidenhead.” Sex, again.)

The “wanton” woman who was a “rig” also led to the verb “to rig” meeting “to behave in a immodest or wanton manner,” the OED says, later weakened to “romp, frolic.”

Related: Journalists too easily charmed by power, access, and creamy risotto

Okay, we hear you say, get us to the type of “rigging” that has been bandied about in this election season.

Around 1640, the OED says, a new “rig” appeared: a colloquialism for a “dishonest or fraudulent scheme or enterprise; a trick, a swindle.” It’s believed related to the (obscure) noun “reak,” meaning a prank. But it really didn’t take hold until the 19th century, when it was used in relation to the stock market, “To manipulate or manage in a fraudulent or underhand manner.”

And it wasn’t until the turn of the 20th century, the OED says, that it was used as “To influence the outcome of (a race, match, election, etc.) by illegal or improper methods; to fix.” (Hmm. “To fix” also means “to castrate.” Isn’t playing with words fun?)

But if charges that the election was fixed ever get into a court, you can be pretty sure that the outcome won’t be “jury-rigged.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.