What the Hell is a “Jeep”? — How Did America’s Famous Military 4×4 Get Its Name?

"Jeep", "quad" or "bantam" -- regardless of the name, the famous army utility vehicle was everywhere in World War Two. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Jeep”, “quad” or “bantam” — regardless of the name, the famous army utility vehicle was everywhere in World War Two. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“The origin of the word ‘jeep’ is still mired in controversy, even 75 years after the first models rolled off assembly lines.”

IF HISTORIANS COULD pick a single piece of military hardware to symbolize the whole of the Second World War, they’d be hard pressed to come up with a better choice than the beloved Jeep.

U.S. factories produced nearly 650,000 of the ubiquitous utility vehicles between 1941 and 1945 – that’s nearly 500 a day for the duration of the conflict. Each one cost Uncle Sam about $650. At that price, Jeeps were a real bargain, particularly when considering that a single sub-machine gun went for $200.

The 2,000-pound, four-wheel-drive runabout was the embodiment of the word workhorse. Jeeps performed a seemingly endless array of jobs everywhere Allied soldiers fought. From medevac duties in Pacific jungles and armed reconnaissance in North Africa to towing artillery on the Russian Front, jeeps literally did it all and more.

In fact, the legendary machines have carved out such an indelible niche in the public’s consciousness, few today even stop to think about the vehicle’s peculiar-sounding name and where it came from. And interestingly enough, the origin of the word “jeep” is still mired in controversy, even 75 years after the first models rolled off assembly lines.

Nearly 650,000 jeeps were manufactured during World War Two.

Nearly 650,000 jeeps were manufactured during World War Two.

Meet the Jeep

What’s not up for debate is the fact that the word “jeep” wasn’t the original designation for the vehicle. The now-generic moniker didn’t even become an official brand name until 1950 — well after the earliest post-war civilian variants had hit the market.

At the time of the jeep’s initial adoption by the War Department (ten months prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor), the compact utility vehicle was known simply as the Willys-Overland Model MB, after the now-defunct Toledo-based automaker Willys Knight. Subsequent variants manufactured on contract by Ford were designated Model GPW. The army unimaginatively referred to the machines as “Truck, 1/4 ton, 4×4”. [1]

"Meet the Jeep" wrote Scientific American in early 1942. "The United States Army's answer to Schicklegruber's Panzer divisions."

“Meet the Jeep” wrote Scientific American in early 1942. “The United States Army’s answer to Schicklegruber’s Panzer divisions.”

Early nicknames for prototype models were numerous. They included “bantam”, “pygmy” and “quad”.

The first known use of the word jeep to describe the box-like vehicle appeared in The Washington Daily News on Feb. 19, 1941.[1] That’s when Willys officials demonstrated the new scout car’s impressive off-road capabilities to Congress by driving a presentation model right up the steps of the Capitol building (see picture). In an article covering the spectacle, journalist Katharine Hillyer reported that GIs who had already worked with the new experimental machine had christened it the jeep. The name stuck.

But why “jeep”?

A tank-killing jeep is equipped with a 37-mm gun. (Image source: WikiCommons)

A tank-killing jeep is equipped with a 37-mm gun. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Disputed Name

The most often cited explanation is that jeep is a derivative of the initials “GP”, which supposedly stand for “general purpose”. Even the Willys’ own wartime president said as much. [2] Yet skeptics argue that the full acronym “GPW” was only applied to Ford versions of the machine and that the first two letters didn’t stand for “general purpose” at all. The G denoted “government” while the “P” was used only to classify the vehicle’s roughly six-and-a-half foot wheelbase. Incidentally, the third letter “W” was in reference to Willys being the original manufacturer. [3]

Popeye's pet, Eugene the Jeep.

Popeye’s pet, Eugene the Jeep.

Furthermore, the word jeep actually pre-dates the famous 4×4 by several years — a fact that all but destroys the widely held GP theory.

In 1936, cartoonist E.C. Segar’s introduced a magical teleporting dog called “Eugene the Jeep” in his popular Thimble Theatre comic strip. In fact, the four-legged critter was the pet and sidekick of the famed cartoon sailor Popeye (here’s an animated short circa 1940 featuring the make-believe canine). Some posit that GIs were probably big fans of the character and appropriated the name for the army’s bouncy new scout car, perhaps because it reminded them of the nimble trans-dimensional travelling pooch. [4]

Interestingly, E.C. Segar didn’t even coin the word ‘jeep’. It had reportedly been floating around U.S. Army motor pools as far back as 1914. [5] First World War-era doughboys were known to refer to any army utility truck or car by the slang term jeep. But why that word? No one seems to know. Incidentally, jeep was also applied to 1930s-era tractors, as well as pre-1941 bombers and even warships [6] – small navy escort flattops were dubbed “jeep carriers”.

But with the widespread use of the Willys 4×4 during the Second World War, all other uses of the word jeep soon fell by the wayside.

According to one etymologist, there are even still more common (albeit dubious) explanations for the origins of the word:

  • Jeep may have been a variation of the word “cheap”, in reference to the Willy MB’s low cost. Unlikely.
  • Jeep could also be an abbreviation for the expression “jeepers” — shorthand for the expletive “Jesus!” — which is supposedly what U.S. Army general George Lynch yelled out during a particularly bouncy off-road test-drive in the car’s prototype phase. An interesting story, but unverifiable.
  • Another explanation is that jeep is actually an acronym for “just enough essential parts”, a nod to the simplicity and reliability of the vehicle. Again, doubtful.

(Originally published in MilitaryHistoryNow.com on Nov. 7, 2014)

Sources:
http://www.worldwidewords.org/qa/qa-jee1.htm
http://olive-drab.com/od_mvg_www_jeeps_origin_term.php
http://www.allpar.com/SUVs/wrangler/jeep-name.html
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/meet-the-jeep/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep#Development
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeep#Ford_Pygmy_and_Willys_MB
http://www.kaiserwillys.com/about_willys_jeep_mb_history_specs

4 comments for “What the Hell is a “Jeep”? — How Did America’s Famous Military 4×4 Get Its Name?

  1. Jay Farquharson
    7 November, 2014 at 6:47 pm

    quarter ton is the vehicles load rating, 4 passengers plus 500lbs of gear, ammo, cargo,

    Just as the deuce and a half, was not the trucks weight, it was how much cargo it could haul

    • admin
      8 November, 2014 at 2:54 pm

      Thanks.

  2. Donald Garlit
    9 December, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    My wife’s uncle, Gene Raddant, was in the 12th Armored Division (the Hellcats). He said they were always called peeps in his unit which was a recon platoon in the 66th Armored Infantry Battalion. He did not hear the word Jeep until he returned to the states.

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