View Full Version : War Names - Tommy, Jerry, Charlie

09-10-2001, 04:46 PM
I searched for this in the archives but came up empty-handed (I have a sneaking suspicion that I, myself, once asked this question, but got no definitive replies).

In any case, I am curious to know the origin of the names that soldiers give to their enemies. For example, "Charlie" used by the Americans in the Viet Nam War for the Viet Cong, "Tommy" for the British by the Germans, and "Jerry" for the Germans by the Brits.

Any insights?

Johnny L.A.
09-10-2001, 04:58 PM
Viet Cong were called V.C. -- or "Victor Charlie" in the phonetic alphabet. Hence, "Charlie".

Alex B
09-10-2001, 05:03 PM
In the registration forms for British soldiers around about the 1914-1918 war, the name Tommy Atkins was used as an example to show people how to fill them in. I'm pretty sure this is where British Tommies got there names.

BTW, anyone clued up as to whether Tom and Jerry were named after British and German soldiers?


09-10-2001, 05:13 PM
In the registration forms for British soldiers around about the 1914-1918 war, the name Tommy Atkins was used as an example to show people how to fill them in.

Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Historical Slang (Penguin, 1972) agrees about "Thomas Atkins" being used as a specimen signature on forms, but also claims that it'd been in use as an example "since early C.19."

09-10-2001, 05:40 PM
I assume that Jerry just comes from the word "german," since that is pronounced with a soft G.


Larry Mudd
09-10-2001, 06:45 PM
Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem that used the full "Tommy Atkins" in 1890.


I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no red-coats here."
The girls be'ind the bar they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, go away";
But it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play,
The band begins to play, my boys, the band begins to play,
O it's "Thank you, Mister Atkins", when the band begins to play.

I went into a theatre as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk civilian room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the music-'alls,
But when it comes to fightin', Lord! they'll shove me in the stalls!
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, wait outside";
But it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide,
The troopship's on the tide, my boys, the troopship's on the tide,
O it's "Special train for Atkins" when the trooper's on the tide.

Yes, makin' mock o' uniforms that guard you while you sleep
Is cheaper than them uniforms, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' drunken soldiers when they're goin' large a bit
Is five times better business than paradin' in full kit.
Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"
But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll,
The drums begin to roll, my boys, the drums begin to roll,
O it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.

We aren't no thin red 'eroes, nor we aren't no blackguards too,
But single men in barricks, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our conduck isn't all your fancy paints,
Why, single men in barricks don't grow into plaster saints;
While it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Tommy, fall be'ind",
But it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind,
There's trouble in the wind, my boys, there's trouble in the wind,
O it's "Please to walk in front, sir", when there's trouble in the wind.

You talk o' better food for us, an' schools, an' fires, an' all:
We'll wait for extry rations if you treat us rational.
Don't mess about the cook-room slops, but prove it to our face
The Widow's Uniform is not the soldier-man's disgrace.
For it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' "Chuck him out, the brute!"
But it's "Saviour of 'is country" when the guns begin to shoot;
An' it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' anything you please;
An' Tommy ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Tommy sees!

09-10-2001, 10:40 PM
The OED says that Jerry is derived from German, perhaps influenced by other uses of the word jerry. Jerry was a 19th century nickname for a round hat and for a chamber pot (one assumes the comparison would be to the German helmut, but that is not explicitly stated).

The other common name for a German was Fritz, taken from the common German nickname for Friedrich. (This was more of a WWI name, although it appeared in WWII.)

I think the British called their Boer adversaries Piet, another common name.

Joe showed up on both sides of the front line, with U.S. essays and cartoons referring to G.I. Joe and Joe being a name the Japanese frequently used when attempting to interact with U.S. troops. (I doubt that the Japanese used the name in the manner of "Joe hit us hard last night.")

09-10-2001, 10:43 PM
Johnny Reb...Billy Yank

09-10-2001, 11:47 PM
Johnny L.A. got charlie right. It appears first in print in 1965.

Jerry as a nickname for a German in the military appears in print in 1915, according to Lighter. I'm curious of the OED date for this use.

As an interesting aside, Jerry was a term in common usage from 1867 meaning an Irish railroad worker. It morphed into simply a "section worker" on the railroad, without regard to ethinic origin.

this earlier thread (http://boards.academicpursuits.us/sdmb/showthread.php?threadid=27255) offers quite a bit of useful info on "Tom & Jerry" as well as info on our other questions in this thread.

I'm stil working on "Tommy", only in the sense of "did it go back to British forms developed in early 1800's? It certainly existed in the 1800's.

09-10-2001, 11:50 PM
Reeder While I can find the term Johnny Reb in print in 1862, I can't seem to find Billy Yank. Where did that come from?

09-11-2001, 12:36 AM
The earliest cite the Online OED gives is this:1919 J. B. MORTON Barber of Putney ii, There was three Jerries waiting for 'im to get tired and chuck it.

09-11-2001, 12:49 AM
Lighter's 1915 cite reads: 1915 in Roy Pvt. Fraser 67: Jerry had several shots at me and missed.

09-11-2001, 01:15 AM
My OED (not the most recent edition) gives 1919 for the first citation of Jerry for German in print, however all three of the erliest citations are clearly reminiscences of WWI and appear to show a contemporary use.

Jerry did come back in WWII, actually lending itself to jerry can (jerrycan), the flat-sided fuel container that was adopted by both sides, but had been developed by the Germans and was named after their use of it.

Billy Yank has been used as the counterpart to Johnny Reb for at least 40 years (since the centennial). Interestingly, I do not remember seeing it in older works. A Google search turns up lots of hits, but most are the names of books or web pages. I have not found an early citation for Billy Yank.

09-11-2001, 08:54 AM
Would it be too much of a jump to suggest that Tommy Atkins used on the recruiter forms comes from T.A., the Territorial Army?

Also, would the Billy in Billy Yank come from the Irish slang term for Protestant?

09-11-2001, 12:55 PM
Robert Graves, in Goodbye to All That, claims that Tommy Atkins was a real soldier and a member of his own regiment, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, who was picked (for some reason I can't remember) as the exemplar for the recruiting forms. However, there doesn't seem to be any other source to back this up. In any event, it seems that this was a well-established piece of Regimental apocrypha by the time he joined up (c. 1914) and that the name had been in use for some time by then. However, that is already established by the Kipling poem, so it doesn't add very much to the debate.

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