[lit-ideas] A New and Better "gung ho"

  • From: "Richard Henninge" <RichardHenninge@xxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Sun, 1 Jan 2006 03:37:57 +0100

From answers.com:

gung ho or gung-ho (gung'ho') 
adj. Slang. 
Extremely enthusiastic and dedicated.

[Earlier Gung Ho, motto of certain U.S. Marine forces in Asia during World War 
II, from Chinese (Mandarin) gonghé, to work together (short for gongyèhézuòshè, 
Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society) : gong, work + hé, together.]

Our Living Language   Most of us are not aware of it today, but the word gung 
ho has been in English only since 1942 and is one of the many words that 
entered the language as a result of World War II. It comes from Mandarin 
Chinese gonghé, "to work together," which was used as a motto by the Chinese 
Industrial Cooperative Society. Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson (1896-1947) 
borrowed the motto as a moniker for meetings in which problems were discussed 
and worked out; the motto caught on among his Marines (the famous "Carlson's 
Raiders"), who began calling themselves the "Gung Ho Battalion." From there 
eager individuals began to be referred to as gung ho. Other words and 
expressions that entered English during World War II include flak, gizmo, task 
force, black market, and hit the sack.

  I don't think so. You heard it here first, unless you've heard it directly or 
indirectly from one of my students. It came to me last year, but I'll let the 
cat out of the bag the first day of this year. 

  The supposed etymology bracketed above--"...from Chinese (Mandarin) gonghé, 
to work together (short for gongyèhézuòshè, Chinese Industrial Cooperative 
Society) : gong, work + hé, together"--doesn't hold water. The second syllable, 
hé, is simply not going to transmogrify to anything resembling "ho." That is to 
say, "hey" is "hey" and "ho" is "ho" and never the twain shall meet. Then, on 
top of that, there is the--in itself ridiculous--derivation of "gong, work + 
hé, together" from "gongyèhézuòshè, Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society" as 
its alleged short form. Come to think of it, the "gung" in "gung ho" is 
similarly far from "gong." If this etymology were correct, why didn't the 
Marines call themselves the "Gong Hey Battalion"?

  Well, there's a reason for everything. Anybody who wants can easily be 
convinced that this universally repeated etymology is wrong by asking anyone 
conversant with Chinese to utter the Chinese expression for "better," or 
literally "more good." What they will then hear is (approximately) "gung how." 
Even the current motto for the improvement of the city of Hong Kong ends with 
these words: "Hong Kong will become better (gung how)." 

  The origin of the expression can best be imagined when one considers that 
Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson was not overly familiar with Chinese when 
he served as an observer of the work in the aforementioned Industrial 
Cooperative Society, but what he did hear when the members of the cooperative 
were putting there heads together and discussing ways to improve industry in 
the country would have been the excited or deliberate declaration, "This (or 
that) would be *better* (gung how)." This makes much more sense as the name 
that Carlson later "borrowed ... as a moniker for meetings in which problems 
were discussed and worked out," and not some impossible short form of the name 
of the cooperative, which, after all, would never even have generated the kind 
of emotions usually involved in the creation of nicknames, monikers, and the 
like. "More good," however, is the kind of phrase that can nest itself in 
people's, families' and individuals' minds, and shape a nation's thinking over 
generations.

  Richard Henninge
  University of Mainz

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