On History: The Jeep

By | Tuesday, June 10, 2014 Leave a Comment
I think that when most people hear the word "Jeep" they think of something like this...
A four-wheel drive, off-road vehicle produced by Chrysler. Although you probably see more of them on the highways than off-road any more, due to its popularity and successful marketing.

The vehicle was originally designed in 1941 for the military, and they began producing them for civilian use immediately following World War II. The general population is probably more familiar with later models that were used throughout the 1950s, and regularly depicted on M-A-S-H. (Fun fact: comic book writer Larry Hama spent most of his acting career on M-A-S-H in one of these Jeeps.) But the basic design and functionality has remained largely intact since its inception.

But the name "Jeep" is older than the vehicle it's most commonly associated with. Although it's often believed that the name came from slurring the initials G.P. (for General Purpose) there's not really any evidence to support this. There's actually greater evidence to say that the name came for E.C. Segar's comic strip Thimble Theater.

Segar is, of course, famous for creating Popeye the Sailor and his elaborate cast of characters. And, although not now as well-known as Olive Oyl or Wimpy, one of the characters he added in March 1936 was Eugene the Jeep. The "jeep" part of his name comes from the sound he makes, which was a kind of variation on how a bird might say "cheep."

Eugene the Jeep turned out to be a very useful character; his ability to pass seemingly insurmountable obstacles led to people borrowing the term in everyday usage. (I'm partial to Drew Anderson's description of how powerful the character was in the strip: "Eugene the Jeep, a small critter that looks like an awkward-to-produce cross between a giraffe and a dog who can do things like teleport, walk through walls, climb on ceilings, and basically just tell the laws of physics to go fuck themselves.") Everyone read the comics in those days, and Thumble Theater was one of, if not the most popular of King Features' strips at the time. So it was easy for people to use the word "jeep" as a descriptor of something that could go wherever it wanted. The word shows up in the New York Times in a 1938 article talking about a powerful tank being used at the time: "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 quick and easy way to denote that these vehicles could go where most couldn't. The connection between the name Jeep and the vehicle we now know as one is credited to Irvin Hausmann, who announced the name for the vehicle during tests in 1940 for the US Army. Although it was referred to by other names like bug, buggy blitz, puddle jumper, peep and quad, Hausmann responded "It's a Jeep" when asked during a public demonstration by a Washington Daily News reporter what this new vehicle was called. The name stuck.
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