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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 phrasesEdit

A model showing a method for jury-rigging a rudder
  • The compound words "jerry-built" and "jerry-rigged" have a separate origin and imply shoddy workmanship not necessarily temporary in nature.[1][i][ii]
  • On the North side of the Indiana-Kentucky state line (Ohio River), "bluegrass engineering" is a derogatory reference to rural (hillbilly, Kentuckian) folks keeping something working without proper tools or parts.[citation needed]
  • 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).[iii]
  • 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.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit

  • 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 phrasesEdit

  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". Retrieved 28 February 2013. 
  3. ^ "Time to 'break free' of No 8 wire mentality". Stuff. 

Further readingEdit

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