GI: "Government Issue"?

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Wed Dec 29 22:04:48 UTC 2004

In a message dated > Tue, 28 Dec 2004 18:21:43 -0500,   Wilson Gray <
> wilson.gray at RCN.COM> grumbled:

> On Dec 27, 2004, at 5:44 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> > Earliest cite of the noun ["G.I."] ("a soldier") seems to be from West 
> Point,
> > late '30s.  Earlier editions of the West Point yearbook "The Howitzer"
> > offer "G.I." adj. as "government issue."
> >
> > The earliest sense of the abbreviation, however, in print in 1906 and
> > in use through both World Wars, was "galvanized iron," applied
> > especially to buckets and garbage cans.
> I guess that the phrase, "government issue," had simply died out by my
> day, though "G.I. can" still lives or, perhaps, lived, in my day. But
> it was applied only to 40-gallon-sized, galvanized-iron garbage cans.
> And "S.O.P." was sometimes used instead of "G.I." in some instances,
> e.g. "that's not G.I./S.O.P." with respect to a locker that wouldn't
> pass inspection. But even a person who said "... not S.O.P." would
> advise, "You'd better G.I. that/get that G.I.'d."

I'm prepared to believe that "G.I." originally meant "Galvanized Iron" based 
on the following:  "G.I. can" (a 40-gallon bucket or whatever) --> "G.I. 
party" (use such a G.I. can while scrubbing the floor) --> "G. I. [anything else 
unpleasant]" --> "G. I. [anything to do with soldiers]", with "Government Issue" 
being a folk etymology.

That is, "G. I. party" (still in use when I was in the Army 1969-1971) was 
the phrase from which all the other uses of "G.I." came.  

A very minor piece of negative evidence:  there does not seem to have been a 
World War I expression "doughboy party" meaning a session of scrubbing floors, 
showing that the "G.I." of "G. I. party" probably came from something other 
than a  pre-existing nickname for soldiers.

Aside---in the Civil War the Union Army accepted ex-Confederate soldiers for 
service in the West (not against the Confederacy,. of course).  These men were 
known as "galvanized Yankees" because their uniforms had changed color, just 
as iron changes color when it is galvanized.  I seriously doubt this had 
anything to do with "G.I.".

> BTW, there was also a kind of shapeless, soft, cloth cap, such as the
> marines wear in starched form, issued to us, but which we were
> forbidden to wear, unless we were pulling some labor-intensive duty
> like K.P. This cap was called a "[kei pi]" cap. Naturally, I assumed
> that this was "K.P. cap." But then, I flashed on the possibility that
> the name of this was actually   "_k├ępi_ cap." Any thoughts?

I'm fairly sure this indeed was the French word "kepi" (acute accent on the 
"e") and therefore "kepi cap" is redundant, like "ATM machine".  The US Army 
has been using kepis off and on since Civil War days, and note that MWCD11 gives 
a date of "1861" for "kepi" in English.  The "forage cap" which was the most 
common headgear for Union infantry was a modified kepi.  

   You word "shapeless" is misleading.  The US Army in the Korean war era had 
a form of kepi as part of the fatigue uniform (in World War II the US Army 
wore its "Class A" dress uniforms into battle---remember Patton giving orders 
that soldiers were required to wear their neckties on the battlefield?)  This 
cap was not "shapeless", rather it was almost cylindrical for a couple of inches 
before reaching a flat top (although the front of the cap slopes inward, like 
on the Civil War forage cap but less drastically).  I have in front of me a 
book about the TV show M*A*S*H, which shows numerous examples of this kepi.  
This is also the cap that Fidel Castro always wears.

Sometime before the Vietnam War the US Army switched from the kepi to the 
baseball cap, which means that Fidel is wearing an out-of-date piece of headgear. 
 Doesn't seem to bother him.  Somewhere in Cuba there must be a tailor shop 
which produces obsolete US Army clothing for Cuba's leadership.

The cap traditionally worn by the French Foreign Legion is a kepi, but much 
stiffer than the old US Army version, much closer to being a cylinder, and with 
a piece of linen added at the back of the neck to protect against sunstroke.

Quick:  what is the uniform of the honor guard of the French Foreign Legion?

Two other pieces of headgear lore:

The campaign hat, commonly called the "Smokey the Bear hat", was made the 
characteristic headgear of State Police troopers by H. Norman Schwartzkopf.  The 
Gulf War general?  No, his father, who among other accomplishments was the 
founder of the New Jersey State Police (who, sadly, have abandoned the campaign 

The button on the top of a baseball cap is not there for decoration.  It has 
a practical purpose.  It is to provide a place to stash your chewing gum.

     - James A. Landau 

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