Leatherneck is a well-known and accepted term used to describe a U.S. Marine. In fact, it’s now even in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, defining leatherneck as simply the synonym for a Marine. But where did this term come from?
History of the Term Leatherneck
While none of these theories can be fully proven, there’s good evidence for a few reasons why Marines are called leathernecks.
The term leatherneck is said to have been derived from the tall, leather collar that used to be a feature of the Marines uniform in both the British and American Marine Corps. From 1798 to 1872, it remained as part of the U.S. Marines dress code and is likely where the term leatherneck originated.
Some say the collar was worn to protect their necks from the cutlass of a pirate or a surprise strangling from behind with a wire. Since the Marines often occupied ships, being under Navy jurisdiction, it makes sense that these leather stocks, as they were called, would make a decent form of protection.
Another theory as to why these almost 3-inch tall leather collars were worn was to keep a Marines head held high on parade. They were known to be uncomfortable and during the Civil War, General George F. Elliott said that the “effect of the stock when buckled around a man’s neck was to hold his head high in the air, like geese looking for rain”. Whether that was meant to be a sign of respect or an insult is unclear.
Still, there are other lesser known theories as to why Marines are called leathernecks. One is that since they spend so much time on the decks of ships that the neck would be exposed, turning tanned and leathery in the sun, offering the term leatherneck. Another more insulting theory is that Marines are so gruff that they only wash their faces and nothing else, leaving an unclean, leathery neck.
Keeping the Tradition Alive
The U.S. Marines, along with the other major branches of the military, is deeply rooted in tradition and, rightfully so, are extremely proud of their history. Although leatherneck can sometimes be seen as mockery, the U.S. Marines take it in stride. Instead, it should be seen as a piece of lingo, not a derogatory term.
It persists in obvious ways, too. “Leatherneck” is now the name of the Marine Corps Association’s monthly magazine and Western Illinois University (WIU) took on the term Leatherneck as their school’s mascot, led by Marine hero Ray “Rock” Hanson in 1927 with permission from the U.S. Navy. WIU is still the only non-military institution with a nickname derived from military history.
So, regardless of where leatherneck originally came from, it’s a term that has clearly stood the test of time and continues to be a word used fondly among U.S. Marines of all generations.