War of Words: ‘Jeep’

‘Jeep’ was US Army slang meaning something that was unimportant or laughable.

The ubiquitous American quarter-ton truck, the jeep, is an icon of World War II. The jeep was agile, rugged, and reliable. Some 650,000 were produced by the close of 1945. Huge numbers, more than 180,000, were supplied via Lend-Lease to other nations, including Britain, Canada, China, and the Soviet Union.

Jeep used by soldiers in Brisbane, Australia, in 1943. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Contrary to common belief, the word ‘jeep’ does not derive from GP, for general purpose. ‘Jeep’ was US Army slang meaning something that was unimportant or laughable. A pre-war army recruit also might be called a jeep. Additionally, a 1936 Popeye cartoon-strip character named Eugene the Jeep bore the moniker.

The word was directly linked with the famous vehicle when the Willys-Overland Company test trials driver called its entry ‘jeep’ to differentiate it from competing Bantam and Ford machines. Other wartime usages emerged: ‘jeep’ and ‘jeeping’ meant going somewhere by jeep; ‘jeepable’ was something traversable by a jeep.

The Willys model was ultimately selected for mass production in 1941, and Ford was also tapped to manufacture the same design. With its four-cylinder engine, the jeep could reach 65mph. Four-wheel drive and generous ground-clearance enabled it to cross shallow water and ascend grades of up to 60%. Jeeps performed a myriad of roles, including reconnaissance, supply hauler, personnel mover, and weapons carrier.

The jeep’s range and agility proved especially valuable to Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) during the North African campaign. Daring SAS commandos rode jeeps mounting machine-guns in raids against Axis airfields deep behind enemy lines.

The jeep’s wartime importance is difficult to overstate. Dwight Eisenhower considered the jeep, the landing craft, and the C-47 transport plane to be the three instruments that had brought victory to the Allies. George Marshall went further, claiming it was America’s most significant contribution to modern war.

Marc DeSantis