This Word is Rigged

The hidden origins of 'rigged'

You may have been hearing a lot about rigging recently: rigged elections, rigged systems, rigged calf-roping competitions, rigged juries, jury-rigged things. Here's the catch: one of these riggeds is not like the others.


The 'rig' that means "to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means" first appeared in an 18th century slang dictionary with the definition "game, diversion, ridicule. See 'fun'."

The verb rig that we use to mean "to manipulate or control usually by deceptive or dishonest means" and "to fix in advance for a desired result" doesn't have anything to do with the rig that shows up in jury-rig. Nor does it have anything to do with the rigging for ships, nor with the big rigs (also known as semitrailers). All three of these unmanipulated and unfixed rigs are related to each other, and come from a Middle English word that refers to fitting out a ship with tackle.

But the origins of the tricky rig are somewhat obscure. We do know that the verb comes into use in the middle of the 1800s, and it comes from an earlier dialect noun that means "a trick or a swindle," but there's not much to go on past that.

What we do know, however, is that the noun rig that refers to a trick was in use for a while before the verb came into being. We have evidence of the noun going back to the 1600s, and the evidence for its use is fairly good. But the noun isn't entered into hardly any of the 17th- or 18th-centuries dictionaries for one reason: it was cant.

Cant is often called "thieves slang," and that's essentially what it is: the argot of an area's sketchier citizens. During the 18th century, there was a sudden fascination with the underworld, and it led to some fascinating writing (called "rogue literature") and some dictionaries to help a fine, upstanding citizen decode what the London pickpockets and prostitutes were saying.

The dialect and cant rig shows up first in Nathan Bailey's Universal Etymological English Dictionary. Bailey's dictionary was original published in 1721, but as interest in canting slang grew, so, too, did Bailey's dictionary. He published two supplementary volumes to his dictionary, and the third one, released in 1737, included a section called "A Collection of the Canting Words and Terms, both ancient and modern, used by Beggars, Gypsies, Cheats, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifters, Foot-Pads, Highway-Men, &c"; it's in this list that rig shows up and is defined as "Game, Diversion, Ridicule. See Fun." It also shows up in the gold standard for 18th-century slang dictionaries, Francis Grose's A Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. Grose defines it as "fun, game, diversion, or trick," and then gives us typical uses of the noun: "to run one's rig upon any particular person, to make him a but; I am up to your rig, I am a match for your tricks." By the early 1700s, we had coined a complementary verb rig that referred to tricking or fooling someone.

Though both the noun and the verb were still considered somewhat "low," they continued to gain use in some very high places. In the early 1800s, the noun and verb rig came to refer to fraudulent auctions, and a stock scheme to manipulate prices by cornering the market in a publicly listed stock. You could say that rig had moved from one set of thieves (pickpockets) to another (bankers).

And this was the particular meaning that catapulted the verb ahead of the noun in both use and semantic development. By the mid-1800s, use of the noun was beginning to slowly decline, while use of the verb and its new, broader "manipulate" meaning was rising. Suddenly anything could be rigged: contests, committees, votes. And, if the evidence is any clue, lots of things were. Game shows were rigged; juries were rigged; even Little League softball matches were dirty.

So while the current climate may make it sound like everyone's in for the fix nowadays, that's not quite true. Everyone's been in for the fix since about the 1700s.