Rigged: A Word Moves From Shipping to Politics

April 23, 2016

Rigged: A Word Moves From Shipping to Politics
Wall Street Journal, Apr. 23, 2016

If one thing unites the rhetoric of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, it is their critique that “the system”—whether political or economic—is “rigged” by the powers that be.

In stump speeches, Mr. Trump has taken on the Republican Party’s national apparatus by claiming that the process for selecting delegates for the presidential nominating convention is “rigged.” He further stated in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece that “our unfair trade, immigration and economic policies…have also been rigged against Americans.”

On the Democratic side, many supporters of Mr. Sanders see the selection of superdelegates by party leaders as “rigging” the nomination process in favor of Hillary Clinton. Mr. Sanders also complains about an economic system that is “rigged” against the middle class, and Mrs. Clinton has followed suit, acknowledging in a February debatethat “yes, the economy is rigged in favor of those at the top.”

Where did all of this “rig”-marole come from? Back in the 16th century, writers chiefly used “rigged” to describe sailing vessels fully equipped to go to sea. “Rigging” a ship involved fitting it with all the necessary ropes and cables to support the masts and control the sails.

“Rigged” eventually took on a less positive meaning: put together hastily or as a temporary measure. That slapdash sense came through especially in the forms “rigged up” or “jury-rigged.” (“Jury” originally referred to a ship’s temporary “jury mast,” erected to replace one that had broken off. Confusion with the expression “jerry-built” led to a blended version, “jerry-rigged.”)

Meanwhile, an even less flattering meaning of “rigged” emerged, having to do with fraudulent manipulation. That usage likely stems from a slangy use of the word “rig” meaning “trick, swindle,” dated by the Oxford English Dictionary to 1640 and etymologically unrelated to the nautical meaning.

Stock markets were the first systems to be called unfairly “rigged.” An 1826 article in the Times of London described efforts to “rig” joint-stock companies by manipulating their prices. The Egyptian Trading Co. was dubbed “one of the very best ‘rigged’ Companies that ever were introduced into the share-market.”

From the financial world, the word spread to other kinds of corrupt practices. By the early 20th century, “rigged” could be used in sports for match-fixing and in politics for election-fixing. “Vote-rigging” became a popular label for electoral fraud.

Party conventions, too, have often been painted as “rigged” long before Messrs. Trump and Sanders. Perhaps most famously, former president Harry Truman resigned as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1960 because he claimed the proceedings were rigged to hand the nomination to John F. Kennedy.

After Truman held a press conference warning that the convention looked like “a prearranged affair,” Democratic National Chairman Paul M. Butler responded that the nomination would be “free, open, unrigged and, I hope, unbossed.” We can expect the 2016 conventions to face just as much scrutiny about whether they are rigged or unrigged.

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