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Jury-rigged or jerry-rigged? It may be a moot point ... or is that a mute point?

Oct 19, 2014

When some people are “jury-rigging,” others are “jerry-rigging.”

So who’s right?  Historically, “jury-rigging” is correct, according to University of Michigan English Professor Anne Curzan.

"It comes from a jury mast, which was a mast on the ship that was makeshift – constructed quickly," Curzan says.

"Exactly where the jury comes from, we're not sure. Some people say maybe it's a shortening of 'injury.' But 'jury-rigged' shows up in the 19th century."

Curzan says "jerry-rigged" appears to come from the expression "jerry-built," which referred to a house that had been thrown together quickly with poor materials. It also shows up in English in the 19th century.

"What we see by the mid-20th century is that 'jerry-rigged' and 'jury-rigged' have gotten a little confused with each other," she says.

But there's also "jury-rigging" which comes from the noun "rig," as in to cheat or trick, which then became a verb, as rigging the markets or rigging a jury.

Two other commonly confused terms are "moot point" versus "mute point."

"The word 'moot' goes all the way back to Old English," Curzan says. "It meant a meeting or assembly, came to mean a discussion that you might have at that kind of assembly, and by the 16th century, it was used in the law for the discussion of a hypothetical case by students. We still use it that way – moot court, where students practice.

Curzan says when "moot" became an adjective, it was used to refer to a discussion that was open for debate – the things you might talk about at a moot. 

"But over time, the adjective came to refer to a question that was not open to debate, but that was unresolveable, and perhaps therefore not relevant," she says.

So what about "mute?"

"This is just a great example of an eggcorn," Curzan says. "Now that people aren't sure what a moot is, they have reinterpreted this, and a moot question which is irrelevant is now mute;  it can't talk because it  has nothing to say."