Here in Britain, we’ve been advised by a government minister to keep a jerrycan of petrol in our garages as a precaution against a proposed strike by the drivers of petrol tankers which threatens to leave most of our petrol stations dry.
A jerrycan is a kind of container for petrol, water, or other liquids, and the word jerrycan is one of only four listed in MED to begin with the sound /dʒeri/.
The other three are geriatric(s), gerrymandering, and jerry-built. So we have a total of four words whose first two syllables sound identical. Spelling suggests that there must be more than one etymology, but in fact all four come from a different source.
Geriatric comes from Greek, where the prefix refers to old age, and is one of those semi-technical terms in medicine like pediatrics and bariatrics that are becoming more mainstream than they used to be.
Of the other three, two are clearly pejorative. No one wants to live in a jerry-built house, and no politician wants to be caught gerrymandering. It’s tempting to think that the prefix derives from Jerry, an insulting word for a German, which became common during World War Two. But in fact, it’s only jerrycan that has this etymology. That particular design of container was originally used in Germany, and was adopted by allied forces during the war. They could, I suppose, have called them Germancans, but they didn’t, and they’ve remained jerrycans to this day.
Gerrymandering goes back over a hundred years earlier, and emerged from an election incident in Massachusetts in 1812. OED points to this example from 1881 when giving the etymology:
In 1812, while [Elbridge] Gerry was governor [of Massachusetts], the Democratic Legislature, in order to secure an increased representation of their party in the State Senate, districted the State in such a way that the shapes of the towns, forming such a district in Essex [County], brought out a territory of singular outline. This was indicated on a map which Russell, the editor of the Centinel, hung in his office. Stuart, the painter, observing it, added a head, wings, and claws, and exclaimed, ‘That will do for a salamander!’ ‘Gerrymander!’ said Russell, and the word became a proverb.
And so to jerry-built. I wish I could offer a cast-iron etymology for this, but I can’t. The word has been around since at least 1869, and in 1884 it was mooted that Jerry referred to a building company on the Mersey, but this claim has not been substantiated.
Another possibility is that it is somehow related to the word jury, which occurs in the nautical term jury-rig – a temporary mast constructed to replace one that has been damaged or broken, and which thus has something makeshift about it. But that etymology too is uncertain. The jury, as they say, is still out on that one.Email this Post