In World War One, incoming enemy bombs were referred to as “G.I. cans.” Since the time of World War Two, the term G.I. has been used to refer to military members. There is no real definitive origin of the phrase and different sources have different opinions on what the term means, where it came from, and why.
Does G.I. stand for “ground infantry” or “government issue”? Or does it mean something else? It all depends on who you ask. Most everyone agrees that the origins of this particular term are a bit fuzzy. It also depends on where you ask. In the U.K. a G.I. is a Gunnery Instructor, but in America a G.I. is basically the “everyman” in uniform.
Merriam-Webster defines G.I. as follows:
- Something provided by an official U.S. military supply department
- Of, relating to, or characteristic of U.S. military personnel
- Conforming to military regulations or customs
- Something done in a strictly regulation manner
The dictionary definition includes the use of G.I. as a verb–as in, to “G.I. the barracks” or give it a complete cleaning. A “G.I. party” is related to this–a cleaning session or similar group labor effort. This term is used in many branches of service, not just the Army; in Air Force basic training, for example, the G.I. party refers to a group effort to maintain a common area such as a barracks bay.
Two Cents From Wikipedia
According to Wikipedia, the term G.I. stands for all of the above, but it can also represent equipment, personnel, and according to Wikipedia, G.I. is also an acronym. The specific meaning according to this source could be:
- Government Issue
- General Issue
- Ground Infantry
- Galvanized iron
Some may be confused by the galvanized iron reference; the History Channel (see below) reminds us why galvanized iron might also be a likely suspect in the origins of the term G.I.
The Origins of the Term G.I. According To The History Channel
The History Channel recounts much of what we’ve covered from other sources, but also adds some insight into the origins of the term. Some may think that the source code for the term “G.I.” comes from the popular character G.I. Joe, but the History Channel points out that The GI Joe action figure didn’t debut until the 1960s, long after the term was already in vogue.
But the same report also drops a tantalizing hint–”Cartoonist Dave Breger, who was drafted into the Army in 1941, is credited with coining the name with his comic strip titled G.I. Joe,” published in a weekly military-themed publication called Yank, circa 1942.
Yank was a magazine concept proposed to the U.S. Army in 1942 and had a run that lasted until 1945. The magazine’s run was short compared to long-lasting publications like Rolling Stone, and its three-year run may or may not have helped push the term G.I. into a wider usage among the troops, but that is speculation.
What is more likely is that the term became used by troops after being exposed to it in basic training from an unlikely source. According to History.com, “A popular theory links the term to the early 20th century, when ‘G.I.’ was stamped on military trash cans and buckets.”
That particular G.I. does indeed stand for “galvanized iron” as discussed above. One book discussing evolution of certain parts of the English language, Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, notes that later the term was reinterpreted to mean “government issue.”
The term wasn’t always used as a positive; some troops used it to refer to the fact that they felt like part of a mass production line, with soldiers being the product. And top military brass hasn’t always been fond of the term, either–American Heritage magazine reports an incident where Col. Roger O. Egeberg earned the displeasure of General Douglas MacArthur by casually referring to troops as GIs.
MacArthur is reported to have snapped, rebuking Egeberg. “Don’t ever do that in my presence… . G.I. means ‘general issue.’ Call them soldiers.”
Why G.I. Is A Murky Term
Many different types of military jargon have origins that aren’t exactly clear. G.I. is just one of those terms–the term “doughboy” a different label used prior to G.I., and has an origin story full of more questions than answers–at first glance.
After the American Civil War in the 1860s, a writer in a publication called Beadle’s Monthly used the word “doughboy” to describe Civil War soldiers. But word expert Charles Funk says that early writer could not explain where the name started.
The Voice Of America official site notes that during the American Civil War, the term “doughboy” was used to refer to soldiers at the time. Nobody quite knew where or why doughboy started being used, but two decades after the war, the wife of the infamous General George Custer explained that “doughboy” was a kind of food served to those in America’s Navy. Like G.I., it’s not immediately clear how or when the term made the jump to refer to all servicemembers (or at least all troops at the time).
G.I. as a slang term comes after doughboy, but it follows in an informal “tradition” of having mysterious origins.
Uses Of G.I. In Popular Culture
There are many instances of the term G.I. show up in pop culture. In Hollywood alone, a list of films includes:
- The G.I.
- G.I. Blues
- G.I. Jane
- G.I. Joe: The Movie
- G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
- G.I. Joe: Retaliation
- G.I. War Brides
- G.I. Jesus
- Strictly G.I.
- There’ll Come a Day: Letters from A G.I. Paperback by Jane Hagedorn
- A G.I. in The Ardennes: The Battle of the Bulge by Denis Hambucken
- The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941: The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor by Paul Dickson
- G.I. Hollywood by Lila McLaughlin and George Mannix
- G.I. Dogs: Sergeant Stubby, Hero Pup of World War I by Laurie Calkhoven
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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