Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jury-Rigged, Jerry-Built: Maybe a Problem?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Jury-Rigged, Jerry-Built: Maybe a Problem?

Article excerpt

As I was reading a touching essay that ran in The Home Forum a couple of weeks ago, about four boys from the 'burbs of New York who in November 1963 drove overnight to Washington for President Kennedy's funeral, my eye was caught by a particular term. (There are times I can get my inner copy editor to shut up and just let me read, but this wasn't one of them.)

The idiom was jury-rig, and it was what one of the boys had to do to their car's "hanging muffler." The phrase means "to erect, construct, or arrange in a makeshift fashion," to cite Merriam- Webster Online.

The word had popped up the week before in The New York Times Magazine article, "The Sleep-Industrial Complex," all about the mattress and pharmaceutical industries. The piece included a reference to a man who was such an enthusiast for Sleep Number Beds that he "jury-rigged something similar for his bulldog." On the subject of exactly how the dog expressed its preference for a particular Sleep Number, the author was silent.

Jury-rigging is a term with nautical origins. "Rig" is one of those little words so short that it contains nearly infinite meanings (an early form of nanotechnology). One of its meanings is "the arrangement of masts, sails, etc., on a vessel."

In the days of the tall ships, when a vessel on the high seas lost a mast in a storm or a battle, the ship's carpenter would fashion what was known as a jury mast from spare parts down in the hold. Jury mast goes back to 1616. And by the late 18th century, jury-rig was the verb for outfitting a ship with an emergency makeshift mast. Over time the concept was extended to include other kinds of improvisations, as with the aforesaid wonky muffler.

Jury-rigged has a somewhat less respectable fraternal twin with which it is often confused: jerry-built. "Built unsubstantially of bad materials; built to sell but not last," is how the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines jerry-built. Where jury-rigged is all ingenuity and resourcefulness, often under emergency conditions - think Tom Hanks and his fellow astronauts trying to get back from the moon in the movie "Apollo 13" - jerry-built is about cutting corners and doing things on the cheap. …

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