By John E. McIntyre
The Baltimore Sun
10:59 PM EST, November 15, 2012
One of our articles has quoted a gentleman saying "jerry-rigged," and of course we let that stand. Our job is to report what people do and say; making them look good is a flack's task.
But if you wish to be precise, you will observe a distinction between jury-rigged and jerry-built, even though the two terms are frequently confused.
Any thing that is jury-rigged is an improvised solution to a problem. It's originally a nautical expression, deriving, the Oxford English Dictionary says, from jury-mast, a temporary mast put up to replace one that has broken off or been swept away. The etymology is obscure, and the OED suspects that some lost bit of sailors' jocularity may be at the bottom of it.
Jerry-built refers to a structure that is hastily and shoddily constructed, ramshackle. It, too, is of uncertain origin. It may come from the name of a particular builder (a nineteenth-century source hints darkly at Merseyside shoddiness), but there is no confirmation of that. Another suggestion, of no greater plausibility, is that it alludes to the walls of Jericho, which, you may recall, came a-tumblin' down.
A jury-rigged contraption may be solid and perfectly satisfactory. A jerry-built structure may not be improvised, but merely cheaply and sloppily constructed.
Two different things. Keep them apart.
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