antedating: jarhead

Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at GMAIL.COM
Mon Feb 22 01:37:34 UTC 2010

A _jarhead_, as most people know since the 2006 film of that name, is a U.S.
Marine.  HDAS (which also features _grapevine_ and _grapevine telegraph_
among its many wonders) long ago took it back to 1943.

Rather curiously, HDAS also includes an earlier sense, dated 1933, "a
member of the U.S. Army." The editor suggests that the designation came from
the Army football team's mule mascot ("jarhead" already meant mule) , as the
following still earlier exx. makes fairly clear:

1926 _Oakland Tribune_ (Oct. 21) 23: Broncos Meet Army at Ewing Field
Sunday....Army's Jarheads and the University of Santa Clara Broncs meet on
the gridiron of Ewing Field, San Francisco, next Sunday afternoon....[T]here
is nound to be some scars on the mule and the bronc when the smoke of battle
clears away.

1929 _Oakland Tribune_ (Nov. 12) B-4: U.C. Stadium Jammed With Color as Grid
Teams Battle....A splash of vivid color filled the gigantic California
Memorial Stadium yesterday for the annual battle between the Army and Navy
football teams. There's no doubt about it - the service classic outrivals
any game in the west when it come to atmosphere and setting, and the rivalry
is as keen bewteen the gobs and jarheads as between the California Bears and
the Stanford Cardinals....The Army mule eyed the Navy goat warrily [sic] and
the game was on.

 The same 1929 sports page conveniently contrasts "jarheads" and

SAN DIEGO MARINES DEFEAT BOAT TEAM...The San Diego Marines defeated the
U.S.S. Tennessee 12-7....A touchdown...field goal...and a safety gave the
Leathernecks their points.

It would seem, then,  that "Jarheads" was originally a sports page
nickname for the West Point football team. It was then occasionally
extended to the army generally. These usages appear to have been restricted
to the Oakland-San Francisco area.

Exactly why "jarhead" should come to mean "U.S. Marine" is unclear, unless
it resulted from some confusion in contexts like "gobs and jarheads."  But
exx. of that collocation may have been too infrequent to have had any
lasting influence. Perhaps enough West Coast sailors in the late  '20s still
regarded marines as "soldiers" to encourage them to apply the term in

The enormous growth of the armed forces in WWII and the word's appearance in
the Randolph Scott movie _Gung Ho_ (1944) helped establish it in its current
sense, though it seems not to have become very general till the early 1950s.


"If the truth is half as bad as I think it is, you can't handle the truth."

The American Dialect Society -

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