Jury rig

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Jury rigging (also Jerry Rigging) refers to makeshift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand. Originally a nautical term, on sailing ships a jury rig is a replacement mast and yards improvised in case of damage or loss of the original mast.[1]


The phrase "jury rigged" has been in use since at least 1788.[2] The adjectival use of "jury," in the sense of makeshift or temporary, has been said to date from at least 1616 when it supposedly appeared in John Smith's A Description of New England.[2] However, the word "jury" does not appear in the digital form of this document, as edited by Paul Royster of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. [3] It appeared in Smith's more extensive The General History of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles published in 1624.[4][5]

There are several theories about the origin of this usage of "jury":

  • From the Latin adjutare ("to aid") via Old French ajurie ("help or relief").[6]
  • A corruption of joury mast—i.e. a mast for the day, a temporary mast, being a spare used when the mast has been carried away. (From French jour ("a day").)[7]
  • Contraction in the nautical tradition for injury[citation needed]


Three variations of the jury mast knot

While ships typically carried a number of spare parts (e.g., items such as topmasts), the lower masts, at up to one meter in diameter, were too large to carry spares. So a jury mast could be various things. Ships always 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. Example jury-rig configurations are:

The jury mast knot is often mentioned as a method to provide the anchor points for securing makeshift stays and shrouds to the new mast. However, there is a lack of hard evidence regarding the knot's actual historical use.[8]

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[edit]

A model showing a method for jury-rigging a rudder
  • The phrase "jerry-built" has a separate origin and implies shoddy workmanship not necessarily of a temporary nature.[9][1][10]
  • Bricolage is building from what happens to be available.
  • To "MacGyver" something is to rig up something in a hurry using materials at hand, from the title character of the U.S. television show of the same name, who specialised in such improvisation stunts.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Israel, Mark (29 September 1997). "jerry-built"/"jury-rigged". alt.usage.english Word Origins FAQ. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  2. ^ a b The Oxford English Dictionary, Volume V, H-K (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933; corrected reprinting 1966), 637.
  3. ^ Captain and Admiral John Smith, and Paul Royster, ed., A Description of New England (1616): An Online Electronic Text Edition, Electronic Texts in American Studies. Paper 4. (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska-Lincoln, 1616;2013) University of Nebraska-Lincoln digital republication. ([1])
  4. ^ Captaine Iohn Smith, The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London: Michael Sparkes, 1624; 2006 UNC digital republication), 223. (Online edition.)
  5. ^ Note that in the orthography of Early Modern English 'I' was often used in place of 'J', thus the actual quote from Smith(1624) reads, "...we had re-accommodated a Iury-mast to returne for Plimoth..."
  6. ^ Robert K. Barnhart, ed., Barnhart dictionary of etymology, (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1988), 560.
  7. ^ E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
  8. ^ Charles Hamel, "Investigations on the Jury Mast Knot" [2] [3] [4] Accessed 2007-02-22.
  9. ^ William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins, 2nd Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 321-322.
  10. ^ Wilton, Dave. "jerry-built / jury rig". wordorigins.org. wordorigins.org. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  11. ^ "Urban Dictionary: MacGyver". Urban Dictionary. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 

Further reading[edit]

  • John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (Naval Institute Press, 1984)