Start the death watch for this phrase

Because I am, apparently, an all-purpose resource on questions of linguistics, a fellow emailed me this question a couple of days ago: “Is it true that ‘jerry-rigged’ is derogatory and offensive?”

Actually, I have no idea why he asked me, aside from the fact that we met briefly about ten years ago and maybe I’m the only writer he’s ever encountered. But it’s always nice to be considered an expert in something, so after doing a little research I wrote back to say that the proper term is “jury-rigged” and that, no, it’s not derogatory and offensive.

Oh, yes it is — at least in the city of Durham’s municipal offices.

It seems that “jerry-rigged” doesn’t pass muster with the language police at Durham city hall, where my correspondent works. The phrase is officially verboten. My guess is that it made the blacklist because the original phrase “jury-rigged” — an old naval term referring to a hasty repair job using whatever material is available — somehow evolved into “jerry-rigged,” a perceived insult to Germans. (Which I don’t get, frankly. When they’re not weighing the pros and cons of invading Poland, Germans tend to be meticulous craftsmen.) My suspicion, however, is that the phrase is forbidden because “-rigged” is sometimes paired with the N-word. When that happens, yeah, it’s malignant.

Whatever the case, the countdown to doom for “jury-rigged” has probably already started. It doesn’t matter how innocent a word may be. If it shares enough letters with an offensive term, it will be purged. Surely you recall the various flaps over this word.

This is the age in which we live. Every year, innocent words are sacrificed to cultural sensitivities — “polo,” for instance, or “caveman.” (The first is elitist and the second is sexist, according to the book “The Language Police.”) Can anyone doubt that “jury-rigged” eventually will find its way onto that list?

So much for my career as a language expert. I don’t even know an insulting term when I read one.

One Response to “Start the death watch for this phrase”

  1. Bayard Alcorn Says:

    Here’s another explanation of the term jerry-rigged. I have a faint memory of a college lecture about how legislative districts are created by the people who are running for those offices. The objective is to draw a district that includes as many supporters as possible and excluding voters who will oppose the candidate.
    One non-incumbent candidate showed a map of the strange-looking district to make the point that it didn’t make any sense geographically. An observer noted that it looked like a salamander. The candidate replied “No, that’s a “jerry-mander”, referring to his opponent whose name was Jerry.
    When Gov. Martin was in office, he made the same point by showing the voting districts drawn by the General Assembly and giving them names like “bug splatter”, like what you see on your car’s windshield.