January 17, 2010
As for gung-ho, Ralph Keyes points out in his new I Love It When You Talk Retro that it was the motto of a New Zealand group, taken from the Chinese words kung and ho – work and together. A colonel in the South Pacific adopted it for his Marine battalion, and a 1943 movie made that battalion’s story popular – and also the phrase. “Over the years,” Keyes writes, “gung-ho took on an odor of overzealousness. Nowadays, calling someone ‘real gung-ho’ isn’t necessarily a compliment.”
Times change, meanings too. Keyes’ book is full of phrases, most still in use, whose origins are not what we might think, and some really take the cake – a phrase originally used after the Civil War by freed slaves to refer to the cake they’d give the winner of a dance competition that mocked the marches in plantation balls.
– Howard Shapiro