The M-38, Truck, Utility, 1/4-ton is better known by its moniker, Jeep. Introduced during WWII, the jeep became famous as the general-purpose transport of the U.S. and allied armed forces. It was so successful as a military vehicle that it was still in military service during the late 1980s (slightly changed and with a new M-151 designation) when I spent many unenviable hours bouncing around Germany in one. The military vehicle spawned the commercial line of sports utility vehicles, now produced by Chrysler. But where did the name jeep come from?

The most likely explanation is that it came from Eugene the Jeep, a strange creature that appeared in E.C. Segar’s comic strip Thimble Theater, best known for its character Popeye, the Sailor. Eugene the Jeep first appeared in March 1936 and was named for the only sound he made “jeep,” which was apparently a play on “cheep” used by cartoonists to represent a bird’s call. From a March 1936 Thimble Theater strip:

Eugene the “Jeep.” [...] “Aw, it’s just some sort of pet I guess.”
“I never heard of a jeep.”

Jeep was a ubiquitous term of sorts, used to designate a variety of odd vehicles, gadgets, and other things, until its usage settled down to mean the 1/4-ton vehicle.

Jeep was slang term for a foolish or inexperienced person. From the Saturday Evening Post of 16 July 1938:

He’s been all over the country, popping sodas here and there, but with all that practice he’s still a jeep.

In military use, this sense morphed into that of a recruit or basic trainee. From a 1941 article in Jimmy Cannon’s Nobody Asked Me:

The chow line stretched from the processing building to the mess hall, where the jeeps eat their first meal in the army.

The military use for a vehicle dates to at least 31 July 1938 when this appears in the New York Times. In this case jeep is being used to refer to a tank, not the M38 truck we’re familiar with today:

TAKE a ride in one of the tanks and you’ll see why the men of the brigade call them hell buggies, wombats, jeep wagons or man-killers!

It was a jargon term in the early days of television, used to refer to a portable television system. From the New York Times, 23 July 1939:

In television parlance a “jeep” is a demonstration unit which consists of an electric camera connected by wire to a tele-receiving set.

Jeep was applied to a wide range of other objects in the late 1930s and early 1940s. But eventually the sense of the small, M38 truck drove the others from the language.

It is commonly contended that jeep derives from G.P., which was the WWII abbreviation for “general purpose.” The evidence, however, does not support this explanation. 

(Source: Historical Dictionary of American Slang; Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Mencken’s The American Language, Supplement Two; Proquest Historical Newspapers)

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