You’ve probably heard the term jarhead even if you’re not part of the military. It’s a common term for someone in the Marines that emerged around World War II. There are a few theories surrounding where this term came from and why Marines are called jarheads but today, it’s mostly used as a beloved term used by the Marines, encouraging a sense of camaraderie.
Here, we’re going over a brief history of the Marines, a few theories behind the origin of the jarhead term, and some other nicknames for Marines other than jarhead.
Who are the Marines?
The U.S. Marine Corps was founded on November 10, 1774, and is responsible for conducting “expeditionary and amphibious operations.” Originally, they were subset groups of the three other main military branches – the Army, Navy, and Air Force and became a component of the U.S. Navy in 1834. Now, the Marines are considered their own branch of the U.S. military.
The Marine Corps began in Philadelphia fighting at sea and onshore as a part of the infantry. In the Pacific during World War II, the Marines took the lead even though they are the smallest of the eight U.S. military branches.
Basic training for Marine recruits lasts 13 weeks, making it the longest initial training process in the military, before completing further intensive training which lasts for various periods of time.
Marines are, rather unfairly, considered the most uneducated and hard-headed of all the other military branches. Since many of them are quite prideful in terms of their status as a Marine and are more often required to complete physical feats above than mental ones, those in other branches have been known to say that Marines “drink the Kool-aid” and are somewhat brainwashed and unintelligent.
Ever heard of the joke that Marines eat crayons? Well, it’s a play on this notion that Marines have the mind of a child. Still, Marines seem to take most of the jokes made about them in stride and have been known to own it, using what was supposed to be disparaging as a chance to strengthen their bonds.
The same could be said of the term “jarhead.”
Some say “jarhead” originated from the Marine uniform.
The first theory about where jarhead came from refers to the Marine uniform. Their uniforms haven’t changed much over the years and are the most stable and recognizable uniform in all of the US military.
The dress blues date back to the early 19th century and the service uniform came about in the early 20th century. The uniforms are also unique in that they don’t often present obvious distinctions such as pins or insignias.
For example, an Army Ranger or Navy SEAL has specific insignia to separate them from the rest of the branch and these subsets are often more proud of these distinctions than the larger branch they are technically a part of. In the Marines, there are only a handful of skills that warrant distinguishing pins.
In short, a Marine is a Marine and there’s a strong sense of brotherhood there, no matter what special skills you possess.
So, how does jarhead relate to a Marine’s uniform? Well, it’s all about the collar.
The collar of the Marine uniform has famously gained attention. During the Revolutionary War, the Marines had a prominent leather collar that earned them the nickname of “leatherbacks.” Although the leather collar is no longer present in the current uniforms, the collar is still rather high, especially on the dress blues.
This theory argues that the high collar makes the Marine’s head, while in uniform, look as if it is coming out of a jar. Hence the term jarhead.
Others say “jarhead” came from the Marine haircut.
The Marine haircut is known as the “high and tight” and it’s a version of the classic military crew cut. It’s characterized by a very short buzz cut on the sides and a tall, almost square look with the longer hair on top.
Therefore, the term jarhead could’ve come from the fact that a Marine’s haircut looked like the cap of a jar which spawned the nickname for their heads.
Some say it has nothing to do with uniforms or haircuts but comes from a more abstract place.
As we previously mentioned, it’s common among non-Marines in the military to stereotype Marines as “drinking the Kool-aid” while being a bit hard-headed and susceptible to brainwashing. Therefore, some theories suggest that jarhead is another permutation of this concept.
By calling a Marine a jarhead, this theory holds that a Marine has an empty jar for a head – hard on the outside, empty on the inside, and ready to be filled with military propaganda.
Others who agree with this theory but take a less critical approach claim that this “hard on the outside, empty on the inside” idea makes an ideal soldier. Perhaps this is why many Marines don’t see the term jarhead as derogatory. In another sense, a jarhead is willing to single-mindedly follow orders straight into battle no matter how dangerous it may be. Basically, Marines are known for putting their duty to their country above their own personal safety.
According to this theory, being a jarhead means going against human nature and sacrificing yourself regardless of what your instincts might be saying.
Yet another theory claims “jarhead” came about due to the Mason Jar company making steel helmets for the Marines.
Although this theory is perhaps far-fetched, the final explanation for why Marines are called jarheads has to do with old school helmets made by the same company that produced Mason Jars. Apparently, these helmets were produced during World War II and the nickname caught on during those years.
Other Nicknames For Marines
Jarhead isn’t the only term used to describe a Marine. In fact, it is one of at least five nicknames the Marines have taken in stride.
The first known nickname for the Marines was the leathernecks, which we talked about earlier regarding the leather collars of the Marine uniforms during the Revolutionary War. From 1798 to 1872, this four-inch collar protected a Marine’s jugular vein and kept their head erect while on parade. The term was so widespread that Leatherneck is now the name of the Marine Corps Association’s official monthly magazine.
Later, in the early 1900s, Navy sailors began calling Marines gyrene as an attempt to insult them. But the Marines loved the term and began using it themselves. It became particularly common during World War I and is still used extensively today.
International militaries also have nicknames for the US Marines. The German Army coined the term Devil Dogs for the Marines when they saved Paris from German grasp during World War I. Soldiers of the Sea is also a common term for the Marines and dates back to the British in the 1600s.
From leatherneck to jarhead, funnily enough, most of these terms used for the Marines were meant to be derogatory but in most cases, the Marines adopted them as terms of endearment. It seems to have only strengthened the bond between Marines, both active-duty and veterans.
Overall, it’s still uncertain why Marines are called jarheads and the argument continues. But, at least now you know a little of the back story. Whether jarhead came from their uniforms, haircuts, a stereotype, or a helmet, we may never really know. Still, it’s a name you’ve probably heard before and that’s impressive enough.
If you’re a Marine, how do you feel about being called a jarhead? Is it endearing or derogatory? Does it depend on who’s saying it? Why do you think Marines are called jarheads?