jerry-built / jury rig

These two terms have different origins and different meanings, although they are becoming conflated in common usage.

Jerry-built, meaning shoddy construction, dates to 1869. From the 1869 Lonsdale Glossary:

Jerry-built, slightly, or unsubstantially built.

The origin of jerry-built is unknown. One assumes that it is somehow related to the name Jerry, but exactly how is not known.

Jury rig, while similar sounding, has a slightly different meaning, emphasizing the temporary nature of the solution and can imply an ingenious solution done with materials at hand. Jerry-built, on the other hand, is often used for a permanent, but poorly built, construction and has no positive connotation.

The origin of jury rig is nautical and is taken from the term jury mast. A jury mast is a temporary mast erected to hold sail when the normal mast has been lost due to storm or battle. From Captain John Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England and the Summer Isles, penned in 1616:

We had reaccommodated her a Iury mast, and the rest, to returne for Plimouth.

It is commonly thought that jury mast is a clipped form of injury mast, but no evidence of this longer term has been found. This form of jury is etymologically unrelated to the jury that sits in judgment at a trial.

The term jury rig itself appears in 1788. From Thomas Newte’s A Tour in England and Scotland published in that year:

The ships to be jury rigged: that is, to have smaller masts, yards, and rigging, than would be required for actual service.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

jerk / jerkwater / jerk-off / jerky

Jerk is an old word, dating to the sixteenth century. The word echoes the sound made by a short, sharp movement. The original sense is that of a blow or stroke of a whip. From Miles Coverdale’s 1550 A Spyrytuall and Moost Precious Perle:

Than he beateth and gierketh vs a little with a rod.

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jury rig

See jerry-built.


The M-38, Truck, Utility, 1/4-ton is better known by its moniker, Jeep. Introduced during WWII, the jeep became famous as the general-purpose transport of the U.S. and allied armed forces. It was so successful as a military vehicle that it was still in military service during the late 1980s (slightly changed and with a new M-151 designation) when I spent many unenviable hours bouncing around Germany in one. The military vehicle spawned the commercial line of sports utility vehicles, now produced by Chrysler. But where did the name jeep come from?

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This term for crossing the street in the middle of the block is U.S. slang dating to the early years of the 20th century. It comes from the sense of jay meaning a stupid person, a rube.

The earliest known use has the term in a slightly different sense, that of someone who is walking aimlessly. From the Washington Post on 7 May 1911:

Kansas City used to consider itself a town of jay walkers. That is another line in which New York deserves the discredit of being at the front of the procession. A typical Manhattan would be run over and trampled on the sidewalk if he tried to walk on State street in Chicago as he walks on Broadway, New York. He has never heard of the prehistoric principle of keeping to the right—he ambles all over the sidewalk.

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java / joe

These are a couple of slang terms for coffee. Java is the older of the two and the one with a known etymology. It is a reference to the island of Java in Indonesia, a place where coffee is grown. The term appears as early as 1823 in the pages of the Christian Spectator of 1 February of that year:

The most remarkable general characteristic of these works is their common relation to the Waverly Novels—a relation very much the same with that which ‘Roger’s Columbian Coffee’ bears to the real Java.

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Jack Robinson

The phrase before you can say Jack Robinson means very quickly, in no time at all. But who was Jack Robinson and how did his name become associated with speed? The answer is we don’t really know, but there are many different explanations.

We do know that the phrase dates to at least 1778 when it appears in Fanny Burney’s Evelina:

I’d do it as soon as say Jack Robinson.

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jackleg / jackknife

Jackleg is a U.S. southern slang adjective meaning unskilled or unqualified. The term almost certainly comes from jackleg knife (jackknife) and was probably originally used as jackleg carpenter, a carpenter with only the most basic set of tools.

The term dates to at least 1837. From the 4 March issue of Spirit of the Times from that year:

He is no more to be compared to Osceola than a jack-leg lawyer to Cicero.

Use in the sense of a knife dates to at least 1672, in the Account Book of Sir J. Foulis:

For a Jock the Leg Knife 00l. 08s. 0d. Scots.

This is interesting because it predates the earliest known appearance of jackknife by some decades. Jackknife is an Americanism and is generally thought to be from one of the senses of jack referring to a mechanical contrivance of some sort. It dates to at least 1711 when it appears in the Official Records of Springfield Massachusetts:

One Dozen of Jack Knives, at six pence the knife.

So jackleg knife may be the original form, with origins in Scotland or the north of England where it developed into the form jockteleg. David Dalrymple’s (Lord Hailes) 1776 Glossary of Scottish words says:

The etymology of this word remained unknown till not many years ago an old knife was found having this inscription Jacques de Liege, the name of the cutler.

Phonologically, a transistion from Jacques de Liege to jockteleg and jackleg makes a lot of sense, but other than this source and a couple of 19th century references, no trace of this cutler or his handiwork has been found. This explanation remains an intriguing possibility, but has yet to be proven.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Dictionary of American Regional English)

Ivy League

This name for the group of prestigious eastern U.S. colleges dates to the 1930s. The name is a reference to the old, ivy-covered buildings on those campuses.

The term ivy colleges is first used in the New York Herald-Tribune of 14 October 1933:

A proportion of our eastern ivy colleges are meeting little fellows another Saturday before plunging into the strife and the turmoil.

The league was added by the Providence Journal on 8 February 1935:

Brown seen as charter member of Ivy League.

The Ivy League operated as an informal association that originally had ten members: Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, Yale, and the U.S. Military and Naval Academies at West Point and Annapolis. The two academies dropped out the association in 1940. The league was formalized in 1954 and played its first games as a formal organization in 1956.

(Source: ADS-L)

ivory tower

Why are academics chided as being in an ivory tower? What does an ivory tower have to do with seclusion or separation from the world?

The inspiration is the Bible. The Song of Solomon 7:4 (KJV) reads:

Thy neck is as a tower of ivory

In 1837, the French poet Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve wrote a poem titled Pensés d’Août (Thoughts of August) that contained the line:

Et Vigny, plus secret,
Comme en sa tour d’ivoire, avant midi rentrait.
(And Vigny, more discreet,
As if in his ivory tower, retired before noon.

This figurative sense of ivory tower was first used in English in 1911 by Brereton and Rothwell in their translation of H.L. Bergson’s Laughter:

Each member must be ever attentive to his social surroundings...he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower.

And around 1916 Henry James penned a novel with that title, cementing the term in English vocabulary.

(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)

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