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

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."

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.