We are contemplating some building works at Blogger Towers. One of our prime concerns is that the structure will not be jerry-built by which we mean built hastily out of shoddy materials. I had always assumed that the first part of this phrase was a pejorative reference to the standard pf German workmanship. After all, Jerries was a sobriquet for the Germans, dating from the First World War.
But I’m wrong. The adjective was in existence well before 1914.
Inevitably with many an etymological exploration, there are a number of competing theories and I will try to sort out the wheat from the chaff. Perhaps a strong contender, not least because it is touted by no more august a source than the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), is that it is a reference to the walls of Jericho. They were so weak that one blast of Joshua’s trumpets sent them tumbling down (Joshua 6:20). Appealing as this may be, I don’t think it is the source.
Another contender is the word gerry, which was a Romany word used to describe excrement. There are better contenders than that. Another suggestion is that it is a direct reference to a firm of builders, notorious for the poor quality of their constructions, Jerry Brothers of Liverpool. Again, appealing as this may be, no one has found incontrovertible evidence that a firm of this name existed in the building trade.
Perhaps more credence can be given to the suggestion that jerry-built shares the same origin as the term jerry-mast, a term used by sailors and ship builders to describe makeshift wooden masts. It owed its derivation to the French word for a day, jour. At least it has the virtue of suggesting the temporary nature of something.
Jerry is a popular abbreviation of Jeremy and was used from the 18th century to describe something that was bad or defective. Samuel Foote’s comedy, The Mayor of Garret, dating from 1764, had a character called Jerry Sneak, who was described as a sneaking sort of fellow, a hen-pecked husband. A jerry shop was a derogatory 19th century term for a public house of some disrepute. Jerry gave rise to a wonderful word, jerrycummumble, defined in Francis Grose’s Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue in 1811 as “to shake, towzle or tumble about.” Perhaps here lies the link between jerry and instability.
All this is pure speculation and there is no certainty as to what the true origin is. What is more certain is that probably the first recorded instance of the use of jerry-built relates to housing and Liverpool. The Liverpool Mercury in 1832 wrote a satirical piece about a meeting held to discuss housing which was attended by “members of the Blue Bell Club, the Jerry-Building Society.”
The term appeared in print, again in the Liverpool Mercury, on 11th August 1863, specifically in reference to some Welsh builders who were erecting shoddy housing in the city; “…they will find out that most of the houses applying are built by the Welsh jerry builders.” It became sufficiently ensconced in the English language to warrant a definition in the Lansdale Glossary of 1869; “slightly or unsubstantially built.”
At the turn of the 20th century, the phrase was being used in a figurative sense as this extract from the Daily Chronicle of August 1901 shows; “in an age of jerry-built books it is refreshing to come across a volume that has taken forty years to compile.”
The phrase has nothing to do with Germans then and almost certainly owed its origin to jerry as something shoddy and temporary. I rest my case, even it is rather jerry-built.