Briefly, jury-rigged means something was assembled or repaired quickly with the materials on hand. Jerry-built means it was cheaply built. Jerry-rigged is a combination of these two words. Jerry-rigged is a relatively new word. Many people consider it to be an incorrect version of jury-rigged, but it’s widely used in everyday speech. Although ‘jury-rigged’ is rooted in the nautical world, it can refer to any makeshift rig: “He jury-rigged a raincoat from a garbage bag in the garage.”
Jury-rigging arose in a nautical context. On square-rigged sailing ships, a jury-rig is a replacement mast and yards (a yard is a spar to which a sail is attached) improvised in case of damage or loss of the original mast.
The word ‘rig’ is also a nautical term. As a verb, it means “to fit a ship or mast with the necessary elements (such as shrouds and sails).” More generally, it also means to assemble. Together, these words become jury-rigged.
The phrase ‘jury-rigged’ has been in use since at least 1788. The use of ‘jury’ as an adjective, in the sense of makeshift or temporary, appeared in John Smith’s extensive The General History of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles published in 1624.
Here are two theories about the origin of this use of ‘jury’:
—From the Latin adjutare (“to aid”) via Old French ajurie (“help or relief”).
—A corruption of joury mast—i.e. a temporary mast, from French jour, “a day”)
Ships usually carried a variety of spare sails so rigging the jury mast, once erected, was mostly a matter of selecting appropriate size. Contemporary drawings and paintings show a wide variety of jury rigs, attesting to the creativity of sailors faced with the need to save their ships. Although ships were observed to perform reasonably well under jury rig, the rig was quite a bit weaker than the original, and the ship’s first priority was normally to steer for the nearest friendly port and get replacement masts.
Similar phrases exist, such as:
—The compound words ‘jerry-built’ and ‘jerry-rigged’ have a separate origin and imply shoddy workmanship not necessarily temporary in nature.
—On the North side of the Indiana-Kentucky state line (Ohio River), ‘bluegrass engineering’ is a derogatory reference to rural (hillbilly, Kentuckian) folks keeping something working without proper tools or parts.
—In New Zealand, having a ‘Number 8 wire mentality’ means to have the ability to make or repair something using any materials at hand (such as standard farm fencing wire).
—To ‘MacGyver’ something is to rig up something in a hurry, using materials at hand, from the title character of the American television show of the same name, who specialized in such improvisation stunts.
— Bricolage – creations from whatever happens to be available.
‘Jerry-built’ is an adjective, describing something that’s cheaply or flimsily built. The word can also be used as a verb: “He jerry-built the house, and now, the roof is leaking.”
Here’s where jerry-built differs slightly from jury-rigged: A jury-rig is a temporary solution created with the materials at hand. In some cases, a jury-rig may be poorly put together, but that sense isn’t part of the definition. Jury-rigs can be clever, innovative, and impressive. If something is jerry-built, however, it’s poorly constructed by definition.
The word ‘jerry-rigged’ is a mixture of jury-rigged and jerry-built. ‘Jerry-rigged’ still isn’t recognized by many dictionaries.
‘Jerry-built’ dates from the middle of the 1800s and is sometimes said to derive from the name of a Liverpool firm of builders (one with a reputation that has travelled, obviously) or possibly a contraction of Jericho (whose walls fell down, you will remember, at the blast of a trumpet). Neither theory has been substantiated.
The word ‘jerry’ is common among the lower classes of English cities in such phrases as jerry-go-nimble=diarrhea; jerry-shop=an unlicensed public-house with a back-door entrance, and jerry-builder=an inferior builder who slings together tenements, which are neither air-proof nor water-proof. ‘Jerry’ seems derived from the gypsy jerr or jir (i.e., jeer), the rectum, whence its application to diarrhea, a back door, and all that is contemptible. From the same root we have the Gaelic jerie, pronounced jarey=behind; the French derriere.
Research shows that ‘jury,’ in the form ‘jury-mast,’ is more than 200 years older than ‘jerry,’ which first appeared 27 Apr 1832, in the form “Jerry Building Society.”
In modern jury-rigging, baling wire is useful. So is duct tape! A hair dryer can be used to thaw frozen water pipes. If you don’t have string, elastic bands can be used to secure a parcel. The list could go on and on.