“To make the bloody thing talk the way I do when I’m on a verbal roll, in my idioms and rhythms.” -Gary Lucas

As any immigrant to an English-speaking country can tell you; although English is not systemically difficult to grasp, its rules and exceptions are so at odds with each other that it is a wonder we can call it a system at all. Though it’s pretty common, I still love the quote:

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”
–James D. Nicoll

I love English. I think it’s very confusing and convoluted and altogether a lot of fun to study. So, in the spirit of my native language, I decided to research and explain a few common phrases, because why the hell not? I will explain each term, give my initial based-on logic assumptions, and then give the actual origin.

Gaslighting:

Gaslighting is a form of mental abuse in which the abuser leads their victim to believe they are losing their mind. They may either simply deny that some occurrence or interaction ever occurred, or they may go about the more classical example of making small changes in the victims surroundings. Regardless of the methods, the process is at best disconcerting for the victim.

Quick assumptions

Gaslighting was a hard one, though the two words “gas” and “light” being used together certainly led me to believe this term originated in recent history. The best I could come up with was that, perhaps pilot lights on gas stoves, ovens, and water heaters used to go out fairly easily, in essence tricking the owner into thinking they could use their appliance.

Actual origin

The term refers to the 1938 stage play Gas Light (known as Angel Street in the United States). The play’s main character uses systematic psychological manipulation on his wife in order to convince her that she was crazy. The title refers to one of the abuser’s methods was to dim the gas lights of the house (I wasn’t totally wrong!). The play coined the term, despite its name change in the US.

Jury Rig (Jury Rigging):

Jury rigging refers to the act of repairing an object using only the objects close at hand. The makeshift repairs are likely not as functional as the original item or a true repair.

Quick Assumptions

Taking “jury rig’ to mean “using your available resources to achieve the best result,” I defined the words as best I knew how and figured it had to refer to the process of stacking the jury of a legal proceeding in order to have the best outcome. Essentially, the prosecutor or defendant could “rig the jury” with what was at hand.

Actual Origin

The term is nautical, meaning an improvised repair to the mast and yards in the event that the original mast was lost. “Rig” or “rigging” refers to the ropes and structure used to control the sails. “Jury,” on the other hand, is nearly unrecognizable for most people nowadays. The adjectival use of “jury” refers to “makeshift or temporary”, and dates back to 1616 (though the work was edited again, and the author John Smith didn’t get it published as “jury” until 1624.) There are several theories for “jury” in this sense, including: the Latin adjutare (“to aid”) via Old French ajurie (“help or relief”), and a corruption of the term “joury mast,” which was a temporary mast used as a spare should the main mast be compromised.

Jerry Built:

This phrase is often confused with “jury rigged,” and usually is combined into “jerry rigged.” Though for a long time “Jerry rig” was not accepted, it has since been incorporated as an alternate for both the previous phrases. Where “jury rig” is a makeshift repair, “Jerry built” refers to something that is poorly constructed.

Quick Assumptions

Honestly the only use of the word “Jerry” I knew of was a derogatory slang for German soldiers and citizens used in World War II. I assumed that since “Jerry built” is similarly derogatory, it was used as a way to describe something of German make during the 1940’s onward. This didn’t seem right, as for most of my life German engineering has had the opposite reputation.

Actual Origin

Though the phrase’s actual inception is uncertain, it seems to have arisen from 1830’s Liverpool. This may be due to “…the cheap, flimsy constructs of a Mr. Jerry of the Jerry Bros. of Liverpool.” It has also been speculated to refer to other poor constructions, including: the crumbling walls of Jericho, the prophet Jeremiah who foretold decay, and (my personal favorite) the gypsy word gerry, meaning “excrement.”

Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about some common idiomatic phrases! 

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One thought on ““To make the bloody thing talk the way I do when I’m on a verbal roll, in my idioms and rhythms.” -Gary Lucas

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