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If you ask four 4×4 fans where the Jeep name came from, you may get four separate answers. One popular theory is that WWII GIs nicknamed their 1/4-ton 4x4s “jeeps” after Popeye’s cartoon sidekick: Eugene-the-Jeep. The only problem is that the military was using the word jeep years before the Popeye comic books–but even in the military it meant something very different than it does today.

What is the original meaning of Jeep?

The word jeep was originally military slang for a new, unproven soldier. It also came to mean a new, unproven vehicle. The first records of its use date to WWI, according to MotorTrend. So the word jeep actually predated the WWII 1/4-ton 4×4 that would become synonymous with it.

Reenactors driving a 1941 Willys MB, commonly nicknamed the Jeep after a cartoon character, a tree-lined road visible in the background.
1941 Willys MB | DeAgostini via Getty Images

Willys and Ford co-designed the 1/4-ton 4×4 that carried Allied troops throughout WWII. After the new “Quad” won the government contract, Willys held a February 1941 press event. To introduce its 4×4, the company actually drove one up the steps of the U.S. Capitol. When the test driver Irving “Red” Housman referred to the vehicle as a “jeep” the press printed the new name, and it stuck.

One reason the GIs may have continued to say “jeep” throughout the war was that the Ford version of the 1/4-ton 4×4 was actually named the “Ford GP.” In this case, GP did not mean “General Purpose” vehicle. Instead, the G stood for “Government Contract” and the P was Ford’s designation for a 80-inch wheelbase.

After the war, Willys-Overland began building a “civilian jeep” or CJ for short. The automaker requested a trademark for Jeep, which the government finally granted in 1950.

What kind of animal is Eugene the Jeep?

A 1936 Popeye comic book introduced “Eugene-the-Jeep.” In this case, a jeep was a type of magical, inter-dimensional dog. The clever little sidekick could walk through walls, teleport, and climb just about anything. But he could only say the word “jeep.”

Meet Eugene in the video below:

Eugene appeared in many Popeye comic books and even in the television adaptation. By the time the U.S. entered WWII, Eugene-the-Jeep was part of popular culture.

By the 1940s, the military still used “jeep” to describe an untested vehicle. But the word had also become civilian slang for something extraordinary.

When the average American opened a February 1941 paper to see a picture of the military’s miraculous new “jeep” 4×4, they probably assumed that this name came from Popeye’s nimble buddy. Decades later, the myth that GIs named the jeep for Popeye’s sidekick persists.

Is Jeep a proper name?

Jeep is a unique word, in that its in the dictionary as both a proper and an improper noun. Upper-case “Jeep” refers to the modern SUV brand. But lower-case jeep is slang for 4×4 vehicles, and the slang word predates the brand’s 1950 trademark.

A muddy Jeep logo depicting a trademarked SUV brand name.
Jeep logo | Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In some parts of the world where Jeep sells no SUVs, every 4×4 is called a jeep. In North America, fans of the Jeep brand are a bit more selective in how they use the word. You wouldn’t hear an American refer to a trail-ready Ford Bronco as their “jeep.” That would be downright confusing.

So there you have it. Some Jeep fans say their beloved SUV is named after a cartoon character, others claim its a slur of “GP,” and still others attribute it to WWI slang. Which one is the true origin of Jeep? You can decide for yourself.

Next learn the origins of the Wrangler name or watch the evolution of the Jeep in the video below:

Learn more about the Jeep brand in this next video:


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