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Jury rigging

Not to be confused with Jury tampering.

Jury 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 (which hold the ship's rigging) 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]


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 one meter in diameter. 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

File:Jurry rigged rudder.jpg
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.
  • 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).[11]
  • "Nigger-rig" is based on the racial slur "nigger".[12] The term is considered offensive and vulgar. The phrase "ghetto rigging" may have similar origin. It can also be referred to as "Afro-engineering".

See also


  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". Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  11. ^ [5]
  12. ^ J.E. Lighter, ed. (1997). "nigger-rig". Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang. 2 (H-O). New York: Random House. p. 664. 

Further reading

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