Jury rigging

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Jury rigging is the use of makeshift repairs or temporary contrivances, made with only the tools and materials that happen to be on hand, originally in a nautical context. On square-rigged sailing ships, a jury rig is a replacement mast and yards (a yard is a spar to which a sail is attached) 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] It appeared in Smith's more extensive The General History of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles published in 1624.[3]

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").[4]
  • 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".)[5]


Three variations of the jury mast knot

Ships typically carried a number of spare parts (e.g., items such as topmasts), but the lower masts were too large to carry spares, at up to 1 meter (3 ft 3 in) in diameter. So a jury mast could be various things. Ships usually 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.[6]

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.[1][i][ii]
  • Afro engineering (short for African engineering)[iii] or nigger rigging[iv] are pejorative terms for shoddy,[v] second-rate workmanship,[vi][vii] with whatever materials happen to be available,[viii] or to describe a fix that is temporary, done quickly, technically improperly, or without attention to or care for detail.[ix][x][xi] "Nigger-rigging" originated in the 1950s;[iii] the term was euphemized as "afro engineering" in the 1970s.[iv][x] The terms have been used in the auto mechanic industry to describe quick makeshift repairs.[xii] The terms, especially "nigger rigging", were generally considered both racist and politically incorrect from the late 20th century onwards.[xiii][xiv]
  • On the North side of the Indiana Kentucky state line (Ohio River), "Bluegrass Engineering" is a derogatory (but acceptable at least in Indiana) reference to rural (Hillbilly; Kentuckian) folks keeping something working without proper tools or parts.
  • In New Zealand, having a "Number 8 wire mentality" means to have the ability to make or repair something using any materials at hand (such as standard farm fencing wire).[xv]
  • To "MacGyver" something is to rig up something in a hurry using materials at hand, from the title character of the American television show of the same name, who specialised in such improvisation stunts.

See also[edit]

  • Bricolage – creations from whatever happens to be available
  • Rube Goldberg - an American cartoonist known for drawing complicated machines used for simple purposes
  • Jugaad – innovative or simple fixes that may bend certain rules
  • Kludge – inelegant solutions that are difficult to maintain
  • Repurposing
  • Upcycling – the transformation of waste into something usable for environmental preservation
  • W. Heath Robinson – a British artist known for drawing complicated machines used for simple purposes
  • Exaptation – a shift in the function of a trait during evolution
  • Robinsonade – a literary genre named after the novel Robinson Crusoe
  • Sailing ship accidents


  1. ^ a b Israel, Mark (29 September 1997). "jerry-built"/"jury-rigged". alt.usage.english Word Origins FAQ. Archived from the original on September 27, 2013. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  2. ^ a b The Oxford English Dictionary, Volume V, H-K (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933; corrected reprinting 1966), 637.
  3. ^ 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.) 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..."
  4. ^ Robert K. Barnhart, ed., Barnhart dictionary of etymology, (New York: H. W. Wilson Company, 1988), 560.
  5. ^ E. Cobham Brewer 1810–1897. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. 1898.
  6. ^ Charles Hamel, "Investigations on the Jury Mast Knot" [1] [2] [3] Accessed 2007-02-22.

References for similar phrases[edit]

  1. ^ William and Mary Morris, Morris Dictionary of Words and Phrase Origins, 2nd Edition (New York: HarperCollins, 1988), 321-322.
  2. ^ Wilton, Dave. "jerry-built / jury rig". wordorigins.org. wordorigins.org. Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  3. ^ a b Green, Jonathan (2005). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (2 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 10, African engineering. ISBN 0-304-36636-6. 
  4. ^ a b Green, Jonathan (2005). Cassell's Dictionary of Slang (2 ed.). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 1003, nigger rig n.; nigger rig v.; nigger rigged. ISBN 0-304-36636-6. 
  5. ^ Eisiminger, Sterling K. (1991). The Consequence of Error and Other Language Essays. P. Lang. p. 327. ISBN 978-0-82041-472-0. 
  6. ^ Aman, Reinhold (2005). Maledicta, Volume 3, Issue 2. Maledicta Press. Maledicta. p. 167, Afro engineering. 
  7. ^ Green, Jonathon (1996). Words Apart: The Language of Prejudice. Kyle Cathie. p. 59. ISBN 978-1-85626-216-3. 
  8. ^ Droney, Damien. "Ironies of Laboratory Work during Ghana's Second Age of Optimism". Cultural Anthropology 29, no. 2 (2014): p. 363–384, Ironic Africa.
  9. ^ Partridge, Eric (2006). The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: J-Z. Taylor & Francis Group. p. 1370, nigger-rig. ISBN 0-415-25938-X. 
  10. ^ a b Jackson, Shirley A. (2015). Routledge International Handbook of Race, Class, and Gender. Routledge. Intersections of discourse: Racetalk and class talk. ISBN 978-0-415-63271-3.  "... 'I can't even nigger-rig it.' ... 'The proper terminology is Afro-engineering.' Here, blackness is demarcated in a classed way. 'Nigger-rigging' is a quick, temporary fix to a problem, but it is a solution that is second rate to the 'right' way. ... declares that this type of knowledge is racialized and classed in a way that deems it inherently inferior. ¶ ... remarks remain unchallenged. Quite the opposite. ... implies that black ingenuity and innovation as subpar and second rate to white ingenuity and innovation. ... affirms this with his response. By responding indirectly ... consents to this classed usage of the word nigger. Not only does this trivialize whether the slur's usage is inappropriate in the first place, but it equates 'nigger-rigging' with 'Afro-engineering.' ... denotes these terms as synonymous, thus imposing an even more classed meaning to this racial slur."
  11. ^ Myers, Kristen A. (2005). Racetalk: Racism Hiding in Plain Sight. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc. p. 100, Chapter 5. ISBN 0-742-53534-7.  "'Nigger-rig' referred to a slipshod method of fixing something. It included cutting corners and sloppy craftsmanship. The term conjured up the coon again—a worker who had no pride in his work, but who just wanted to get done as quickly as possible."
  12. ^ Poteet, Jim; Poteet, Lewis (1992). Car & Motorcycle Slang. toExcel an imprint of iUniverse.com Inc. p. 14, Afro engineering. ISBN 0-595-01080-6. 
  13. ^ Celock, John (March 9, 2013). "Jim Gile, Kansas County Official, Apologizes For Racist Comment". The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 18, 2016. 
  14. ^ Temple-Raston, Dina (2002). A Death in Texas. New York: Henry Holt and Company. p. 38. ISBN 0-8050-7277-2. 
  15. ^ "Time to 'break free' of No 8 wire mentality". Stuff. 

Further reading[edit]

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