language corner

The Jury is in

On "jury-rigged" and "jerry-built" confusion
January 27, 2012

An article about a rundown neighborhood said that “most of the buildings are jerry-rigged structures of corrugated aluminum.” Another article said that a company had “jury-rigged the aircraft with a missile in a demonstration flight.” A third said that “the whole deal is jerry-built, and far from complete.” And a fourth said that the tax system “is now a jury-built, temporary system.” Only one of those is correct; well, maybe two.

Something improvised as a temporary fix is “jury-rigged.” First used in the seventeenth century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, “jury-rig” is a nautical term, not a legal one. A temporary mast to replace one that has broken is a “jury mast”; attaching any rigging to that is “jury-rigging.”

Something that is “jerry-built,” though, is shoddily built, usually out of inferior materials. The OED traces that phrase to 1869. (It’s not “gerry-built,” unless the builder is named Gerry.) The temporary “doughnut” tire that most cars carry these days would be a “jury-rigged” solution to a blowout; let’s hope it wasn’t “jerry-built,” too.

To be fair, things can be “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built,” meaning temporary and lousy, and it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference.

But if you conflate the two phrases and making something “jerry-rigged” or “jury-built,” you’re guilty of idiom mangling. If you rig the jury, though, you might get off lightly.

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