Ironing out a quibble.
Dear Word Detective: The subject of this question regards “G.I.” in reference to persons and things military, not in the medical sense of gastro-intestinal. I was astounded just now to note that Wikipedia says that the expression originally meant, not “Government Issue,” but “Galvanized Iron.” There was other incorrect or misleading information in their brief article, enough to make me jump over to my favorite site and ask, “What have you got on this, O Sherlock of the vocables?” — Charles Anderson.
“Sherlock of the vocables”? OK. Actually, I should have known I’d end up in this racket when, as a child, I developed a fascination with Sherlock Holmes. I’ve read every Holmes story Conan Doyle ever wrote, and I reread them every few years. My wife can’t understand how I manage it, given that I know how they turn out, but I know how the Goldberg Variations turns out, too, and I still enjoy listening to it.
I looked up “G.I.” on Wikipedia, and I must say that whoever wrote that entry has absolutely no future as a diplomat (or, if we’re lucky, as a teacher). There’s a weirdly hostile and arrogant undertone to that entry. However, as least as far as the ultimate origin of “G.I.” goes, the author is not crazy. But the question could certainly use much more explanation.
“G.I.” is, of course, slang for a soldier in the US Army, specifically an enlisted man or woman. The term has been used in this sense since at least 1939, and was very commonly used during World War II. As an adjective applied to the uniforms, equipment, etc., issued to soldiers, “G.I.” has long been considered to stand for “Government Issue” in phrases such as “G.I. soap,” “G.I. underwear,” etc.
In its first use by the military itself, however, “G.I.” did indeed stand for “galvanized iron.” The heavy metal garbage cans found on every base were stamped “Can, G.I.” on the bottom, which would have been very visible to any unlucky soldier detailed to scrub one clean (i.e., almost every soldier at some point). “G.I.” was also apparently stamped on buckets and various tools. This government use of “G.I.” dates to around 1907 and continued at least though World War I. During WWI, soldiers familiar with the heavy “G.I.” trashcans sardonically applied the term to large German artillery shells, which became known as “G.I. Cans.”
Around 1917, however, the abbreviation “G.I.” underwent a widespread “reinterpretation” among soldiers as standing for “government issue,” and by the 1920s “G.I.” was being appended to things (“G.I. cap,” “G.I. boots,” etc.) that could not possibly be made of galvanized iron. This set the stage for “G.I.” to come into use meaning the soldier himself (or, eventually, herself).
Exactly what led to this change in the popularly-accepted meaning of “G.I.” is unclear. It’s likely that the abbreviation “G.I.” simply became so well known among the troops, many of whom probably never understood that it meant “galvanized iron,” that a new, more logical meaning filled a need and became an unstoppable force.
So while “galvanized iron” was certainly the origin of the Army abbreviation “G.I.”, it’s perfectly true to say that today “G.I.” stands, as it has for almost a century, for “Government Issue.”