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March 10th, 2004

The Rudys or the Rudy's? / jury-rigged or jerry-rigged?

by Barbara Wallraff

Linda Rudy, of Warren, Mich., writes, “If I have a sign made to hang outside our house indicating our family name, should it read ‘The Rudys’ or ‘The Rudy’s’? I’ve seen it both ways, and it doesn’t look right to me either way.”

Bless you for asking and not just getting a sign made any which way, as if the difference between a plural and a possessive didn’t matter. One Rudy, two Rudys, three Rudys … the sign should read “The Rudys.” Never mind that the house is in your family’s possession. The way to indicate that would be with a plural possessive, in which the apostrophe would come after the s: “The Rudys.’” But nobody punctuates signs that way. The idea of “The Rudys” is that the Rudys live here.

Joseph Deck, of Somerville, Mass., writes, “I find ‘jury-rigged’ appearing where ‘jerry-rigged’ seems to be meant. I’ve always understood ‘jury-rigged’ to have a literal meaning and closely related metaphorical ones—that is, tampering with a jury or other some legitimate process so that the result is preordained, corrupt, and usually nefarious. ‘Jerry-rigged’ describes something urgently cobbled together. It incorporates a World War II cultural slur, ‘Jerry’ for German, and so, I assume, originated as a sneering British and American reference to German engineering inadequacy.”

The story you tell makes a lot more sense than the truth—but here’s the truth about these words, or as much of it as is known:

Although the “jury” in “jury-rig” is spelled the same way as the “jury” that deliberates, it has a completely different history. This “jury” began, at least 500 years ago, as a nautical term meaning “temporary.” If a ship’s mast broke, the crew put up a “jury-mast” and “jury-rigged” it. A “jury fore-mast” is mentioned in “Robinson Crusoe,” Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel of shipwreck and adventure.

As for “jerry,” British soldiers began calling Germans “Jerries” in World War I, not World War II. But the “jerry” in “jerry-built” dates back to the mid-1800s. It may be old British slang for a chamber pot, or it may be a reference to the walls of Jericho, which came tumbling down—but word historians don’t believe it has anything to do with Germans.

“Jerry-rig” is a blend of “jerry-built” and “jury-rig,” but only recently have these two terms begun to mingle. The earliest date for “jerry-rig” given in any major dictionary is 1959, and some dictionaries don’t include it at all, for they still consider it a mistaken form—a garble.

Today “jury-rigged” and “jerry-built” mean nearly the same thing: “assembled hastily or sloppily.” “Jury-rigged” is seen only rarely, probably because the “temporary” meaning of “jury” has been all but forgotten, so “jury-rigged” does call to mind tampering with a jury in a courthouse. “Jerry-built” comes up somewhat more often—but “makeshift” is a lot more common than either of those words, and no one misunderstands it. Why not use “makeshift” instead of the jury-rigged, jerry-built form “jerry-rigged”?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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