Most people nowadays know that a G.I. is an American soldier and that the term is popularly associated with the Second World War, but few know what the abbreviation G.I. originally stood for or that the term predates WWII by some decades.
G.I. was originally a semi-official U.S. Army abbreviation for galvanized iron, used in inventories and supply records. It dates to at least 1907 and is commonly found in records from the First World War. From a 1917 entry in Col. Frank P. Lahm’s World War I Diary, published in 1970:
[Lympe, England] is a large depot where machines are delivered for forwarding to France. 12 large hangers [sic], brick, G.I., about 75 ft wide by 150 ft long.
It was also used during WWI in the phrase G.I. can, meaning a German artillery shell. From the 24 September 1918 entry in Robert Casey’s The Cannoneers Have Hairy Ears: A Diary of the Front Lines, published c.1927:
At 11 o’clock he started to drop G.I. cans into our woods.
This was often clipped to just G.I. From a poem by Sgt. Albert J. Cook in Paul Bliss’s 1919 History of the 805th Pioneer Infantry:
There’s about two million fellows, and there’s some of them who lie
Where eighty-eights and G.I.’s gently drop.
Also during that war, G.I. started to be interpreted to mean government issue and it came to be applied as an adjective to denote anything having to do with the army. From a caption to a cartoon in the December 1918 issue of La Trine Rumor:
A G.I. Christmas
By the next war, G.I. had acquired the meaning of an enlisted soldier. It was so glossed in a 1939 issue of Bugle Notes:
G.I., n., An enlisted man.1
The term G.I. Joe first appears in the mid-1930s as a term for a generic enlisted man. From the October 1935 issue of the magazine Our Army:
G.I. Joe wants to know if steel wool comes from hydraulic rams.
The term G.I. Joe was made famous by the title of a comic strip by David Breger that first appeared in Yank magazine in 1942.2
Some have interpreted G.I. as an abbreviation for general infantry. This is incorrect. General infantry has never been a term of art, officially or unofficially, in the U.S. Army.
Historical Dictionary of American Slang, v. 1, A-G, edited by Jonathan Lighter (New York: Random House, 1994), 888-90.
HDAS, v. 1, 892.
Copyright 1997-2016, by David Wilton