As far back as I can remember, the usage went something like "Their jury was rigged, and that's how he got away." Or, "They Jerry-rigged the controller at the last moment and it worked!"

I used to cringe every time I saw something being jury-rigged, until I found it in the NY Times today.

Which one is it? Is the other one wrong?

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    See english.stackexchange.com/q/94806/8019 Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 16:20
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    I did see that question before I posted mine. I believe we are addressing two separate items.
    – Raj More
    Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 17:44
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    The answers there say that both exist, and speculate that one was derived partially from the other; what exactly are you asking? Commented Oct 24, 2013 at 18:04
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    @TimLymington: the other question is completely different, and I don't see any discussion of the jerry vs. jury question anywhere except the comments.
    – Marthaª
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:48
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    Related (not a dupe, though)
    – Marthaª
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:54

6 Answers 6


Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition (2003) says that jerry-rigged goes back only to 1959. It speculates that the term is an amalgam of jury-rigged (dating to 1788) and jerry-built (dating to 1869). The jury in jury-rigged doesn't involve a panel of one's peers, however; it means "makeshift" and appears in the Middle English jory saile meaning "makeshift sail." The term jury-rig thus means (according to the Eleventh Collegiate):

to erect, construct, or arrange in a makeshift fashion.

As for jerry-built, Farmer & Henley, Slang and Its Analogues (1893) offers this discussion:

Jerry-builder, subs. (common).— A rascally speculating builder. Jerry-built, adj., = run up in the worst materials. [The use of the term arose in Liverpool circa 1830.]

From the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins (2000):

jerry-built. The cheap, flimsy constructs of a Mr. Jerry of the Jerry Bros. of Liverpool may have inspired the word jerry-built. Jerry-built could also be connected with the trembling crumbling walls of Jericho; the prophet Jeremiah, because he foretold decay; the word jelly, symbolizing the instability of such structures; or the Gypsy word gerry, for "excrement." Still another theory suggests a corruption of jerry-mast, a name sailors and ship builders gave to makeshift wooden masts midway through the last [19th] century. Jerry-masts or rigs derive their name from the the French jour, "day," indicating their temporary nature.

So whereas jury-rigged suggests "improvised in an emergency," jerry-built signifies "very shoddily constructed."

The much later jerry-rigged splits the difference, according to the Eleventh Collegiate, but perhaps tends a bit closer to jerry-built than to jury-rigged:

organized or constructed in a crude or improvised manner.

UPDATE: The Dubious Jerry Brothers [8/11/14]

In a column headed "Notes on Books, &c." in Notes and Queries (January 26, 1901), an uncredited reviewer discusses the newly released Oxford English Dictionary, Vol. IV, Green—Gyzzern and Vol. V, Invalid—Jew, under the editorship of James A. H. Murray. After noting "Few parts of the 'Dictionary' are more interesting than that dealing with the letter J, the growth of which is exceedingly curious," the reviewer observes in passing:

No satisfactory origin for jerry-built, jerry-builder, &c. has been found, one put forward in the press deriving it from a Liverpool firm of builders not standing investigation.

A followup item by Murray headed "'JERRY-BUILD' : 'JERRY-BUILT.'," in Notes and Queries (April 20, 1901) details the investigation that the earlier reviewer alluded to:

I may add that, after seeing the original letter to this effect [namely, to the effect that the jerry in jerry-built referred to "Jerry Brothers, builders and contractors," which supposedly was "a Liverpool firm in the early part of last century"] printed in Truth in January 1884, I wrote to its author asking for the evidence on which the statement was made. In his reply, now lying before me, the writer admitted that no evidence was producible ; he added that he was under the impression of having heard this explanation of jerry-builder from the English master at the school which he attended, but he had subsequently searched for authority without finding any ; and Sir James Picton, our great Liverpool authority, who had been consulted, had never heard of it. He therefore could not maintain the reliability of the story, and frankly withdrew it. In preparing the articles on the Jerry words in the 'New English Dictionary' (section published 1 January last) we made further investigation, with the help of correspondents in Liverpool, and ascertained that no trace of any such name as Jerry in connexion with the building trade could be found.

The late-nineteenth-century investigation by Murray and his correspondents in Liverpool strongly suggests that the attribution of jerry-built to the slipshod work of the oddly untraceable Jerry Brothers is apocryphal.

(Credit for the discovery of this Notes and Queries content goes to EL&U stalwart Peter Shor; see his comment below.)

Although the Jerry Brothers seem to have vaporized under scrutiny, there is a Liverpool connection to early use of the term. In a book published by John Murray twenty years after the Notes and Queries episode, Ernest Weekley, An Etymological Dictionary of Modern English (1921) remarks:

I conjecture that jerry-built may be for jury-built, the naut. jury, as in jury-mast, being used for all sorts of makeshifts and inferior objects, e.g. jury-leg, wooden leg, jury-rigged, jury meal, etc. Its early connection with Liverpool, where jerry-building is recorded in a local paper for 1861, makes naut. origin likely.

As for the theory that the word is of Gypsy origin (mentioned in the Facts on File Encyclopedia of Word and Phrase Origins excerpt above), we have this item from Barrere & Leland, Dictionary of Slang, Jargon & Cant (1897):

Jerry. This word is common among the lower classes of the great cities of England in such phrases as jerry-go-nimble, diahrrœa; jerry-shop, an unlicensed public-house with a back door entrance, and jerry-builder, a cheap and inferior builder who runs up those miserable, showy-looking tenements, neither air-proof nor water-proof. Jerry seems derivable from the gypsy jerr or jir (i.e.,jeer), the rectum, whence its application to diarrhœa, a back door, and all that is contemptible. From the same root we have the Gaelic jerie, pronounced jarey, behind ; the French derriere.

  • Any information on the origin of 'Jerry' before Jerry-builder? Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 7:40
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    See the addition to my answer. The Facts on File Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins manages to assemble six theories for the source of jerry in the space of a single paragraph.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Oct 25, 2013 at 17:35
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    This reference claims that there never was a "Jerry Brothers", and that is not the etymological origin of jerry-built. Unfortunately, after demolishing that theory, they don't come up with the real origin. Commented Aug 10, 2014 at 0:22
  • Your Notes and Queries citation is a great find, Peter Shor. I've added a discussion of it to my answer, as I think it calls the "Jerry Brothers" theory of origin into serious question.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:21
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    We can find "jerry-shop" in 1831. Here. It is claimed that this is short for "Tom-and-Jerry shop". See here. If this is true, it may not be of Gypsy origin (even if jerry-go-nimble is). But now at least we know the origin of the names Tom and Jerry in the cartoon. Commented Aug 11, 2014 at 19:48

I took a quick stab at an Ngram comparing jury-rig, jury-rigged, jerry-rig, and jerry-rigged; I'm well aware that Ngrams are not definitive, but they do give a good overview. "Jury-rigged" is by far the most common of the four constructions. "Jerry-rig" and "jerry-rigged" don't seem to have come into use until after World War II; I speculate that that may have been due to "Jerry" as a slang term for "German".

According to the American Heritage dictionary, "jury-rig" comes from "jury-mast" (a temporary replacement), which probably came from Old French ajurie, "to help".

I don't think we can say that either "jury-" or "jerry-" is correct or incorrect - they're clearly both in common use - but "jury-rigged" is both older and more commonly used.

Edit: addressing a secondary question within the question - "rigging a jury" (more commonly called "jury tampering") has nothing to do with a temporary repair; that's a different meaning of both "jury" and "rig".


Recent, readily available (but paywalled) corpora have shed some light on the origin of 'jerry-rig'. The phrase is, as stated elsewhere, distinct from 'jury-rig', although due to their similarity, the terms have been conflated in use. 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" (but see following).

The meanings of the terms are also distinct, yet similar enough to result in the aforementioned conflation. The base definition of 'jury-' (in various constructions) is 'temporary', while 'jerry-' (likewise in various constructions) signifies 'makeshift, ramshackle'.

OED, in an entry first published in 1900 and not fully updated since, says this of the origin of 'jerry-builder':

Etymology: Origin not ascertained.
That jerry-builder and jerry-built originated in some way from the name Jerry is probable; but the statement made in a letter to the newspapers in Jan. 1884, that they commemorate the name of a building firm on the Mersey, has on investigation not been confirmed. The earliest example yet found is that of jerry-built 1869.

In a sardonic letter to the Liverpool Mercury, 27 Apr 1832 (paywalled), the first and only reference I could find to the "Jerry Building Society" appears, with this content describing a recent "Vestry Meeting":

There were the members of the Landlords' Club, the Blue Bell Club, the Jerry Building Society, &c: classical allusions to crockery-ware, with handles on one side: assertions by some that holding office had removed the scales from their before dark and prejudiced organs of vision.

An image of the entire letter, and an editorial response to it, may be found at the bottom of this answer.

Earlier that same year, Daniel O'Connell had established or recommended the establishment of "Landlords' Club", that is, clubs to control landlords, as indicated by this extract from a speech reported in the Tipperary Free Press, 31 Mar 1832 (paywalled):

...we shall have a landlords' club, and any man shall be blackbeaned [= blackballed, OED] who will turn out a good tenant.

I found no earlier mention of the "Blue Bell Club"; a later (28 Aug 1847), probably unrelated reference was to a club with an entry in an "Annual Procession of the Regatta Boats" in Manchester. No earlier or later references to the "Jerry Building Society" appear. All three, the "Landlords' Club", the "Blue Bell Club", and the "Jerry Building Society", were probably in the "Vestry" letter as topical and local, but oblique references to participants in the Vestry meeting that knowledgable readers of the Mercury could easily identify without their being named outright.

Building societies were first formed in England in the late 1700s. The organizations are described in Wikipedia:

The first building society to be established was Ketley's Building Society, founded by Richard Ketley, the landlord of the Golden Cross inn, in 1775. Members of Ketley's society paid a monthly subscription to a central pool of funds which was used to finance the building of houses for members, which in turn acted as collateral to attract further funding to the society, enabling further construction.

If my interpretation is accurate, the "Jerry" referred to by the author of the Vestry letter (signed "E.K.") was locally associated with a ramshackle, makeshift house, set of houses, or a builder of such houses. The author of the letter apparently desired to remain safe from an action for libel, as mentioned in later editorials from 13 July 1832 and 7 Jun 1833 (see following), addressed "To Correspondents" by the editors of the Mercury.

It is only after the 27 Apr 1832 Vestry letter that other references to "Jerry" buildings begin to appear. Like the Vestry letter, these references show up in the Liverpool Mercury (all links paywalled):

13 Jul 1832: Jerry Buildings. — A friend wishes us to call the attention of the magistrates or the surveyors, or of any other persons whose duty it is to look after such things, to some wretchedly built houses in the Park, which stand an excellent chance of being blown down by the first puff of wind. We are sorry that we dare not point out the place where this nuisance exists, or name the persons who thus sport with the lives of the community. Were we to do either, we should, in the present blessed state of the libel law render ourselves liable to an action for damages, in which case the chances would be ten to one that the verdict would go against us, however successfully we could demonstrate that our only motive for exposing the knavery was a wish to promote the public good. Under these circumstances we must confine ourselves to mere general statement. Houses of the slightest construction, formed of the worst materials, are run up in all directions, and the only wonder is that accidents, as they are termed, are not of more frequent occurrence. What are the surveyors about? Is their office a sinecure, or do the Jerry builders afford them so much occupation that they cannot possibly attend to it all, and therefore neglect it altogether.

7 Jun 1833: Jerry Buildings — The publication of the letter of a Constant Reader might subject us to an action, if the jerry-builder [emphasis mine] should take offence at it. We have forwarded it to the Commissioners of Watch, Lam, and Scavengers.

21 Jun 1833 (in an article titled "The Trades Union Society"): Another evil of the system is, that the cupidity of some of the masters prompts them to task and tyrannize over their men, allowing them too little time to make a good job; witness what you call Jerry buildings [emphasis mine], blown up like bottles or balloons, without that substantiality and convenience which give security and comfort to the inhabitants.

The foregoing from the 1830s Liverpool Mercury are the earliest attestations of the phrase I found. The term is picked up and spreads, first to the Liverpool Mail (8 Nov 1845), then beyond.

First appearance, the "Jerry Building Society":

Jerry Building Society part 1, 1832
Jerry Building Society part 2, 1832

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    Great find! But are the Jerry Building Society, the Landlord's Club, and the Blue Bell Club real organizations? Or were they just made up for this semi-humorous letter? Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 9:38
  • @PeterShor, my interpretation is that they were made up for the letter, but refered to actual persons and organizations indirectly; I found no evidence for actual existence other than what I gave above. The Landlords' Club was mentioned as a possibility by the LIberator the month before, the Blue Bell Club only appears 15 years later in another locale. The historical record is not so complete as to allow me to say outright they didn't exist, nor yet what the references were.
    – JEL
    Commented Jun 17, 2017 at 16:20

The two phrases have different meanings (at least here in Lancashire).

Jury rigged refers to some form of 'set-up' where an outcome is achieved by some form of premeditated dishonesty.

Jerry-rigged refers to poor build quality or something knocked together in a slapdash fashion.

I was led to believe (as a child) that the term Jerry-rigged came from WW2 when groups of German POW's (Jerry's) were put to work on building sites. Not surprisingly they didn't put 100% into building their captors houses and thus the term 'Jerry rigged' came to refer to something built poorly.

The gentleman who told me this did live through the era and it does seem to tie in with previous comments regarding the post WW2 use of this term

No hard evidence I'm afraid!


Jerry rigged in a more modern sense came from World War Two American soldiers who came upon captured and abandoned German equipment. Towards the end of the war the Germans were in short supply of equipment and parts due to American bombing of their factories and supply lines. So the Germans had to "Rig" their equipment any way they could to get by. The Germans were referred to as "Jerrys" by the Allies. So when our soldiers found these "Rigged" machines they referred to them as "Jerry Rigged".

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    Plausible explanation seeing as the term, jerry-rigged, is dated 1958, according to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (see Sven Yargs' answer). Could you find any external references/sources that would back up your interesting claim?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Nov 14, 2014 at 12:20
  • Jerry-built was the original WWII phrase. Commented Dec 5, 2014 at 1:23
  • The usual stereotype of Jerries were that they were under-imaginative and over-disciplined, to the point of OCD. See here for an example. I would be surprised if improvisation, which the American troops prided themselves on, became associated with the Germans in any specific case. Commented Mar 9, 2015 at 19:49

"jury-rigged" means what the dictionary says, "any makeshift arrangement of machinery or the like." It has nothing to do with dishonesty. Jerry-rigged is an erroneous version of the same.

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