The expression gung ho – meaning “extremely or overly zealous or enthusiastic” – is as American as apple pie, but just as apple pie was originally a British dish going back to medieval times, this particular idiom also has foreign roots, although of a much more recent date. Gung ho is derived from Mandarin, and to be more specific, from Communist Chinese terminology.
It was introduced into American English by Marine Corps Major Evans Carlson who spent time with Communist Chinese guerrillas known as the Eighth Route Army during their fight against Japan in the early years of the Sino-Japanese War. He was impressed by their discipline and toughness, describing in memoirs how 600 men completed a 58-mile march without sleep, with not a single man dropping out. He put it down to what he called “ethical indoctrination,” arguing that soldiers elsewhere could benefit from it too.
“In war, as in the pursuits for peace,” he wrote, ”the human element is of prime importance. Human nature is much the same the world over, and human beings everywhere respond to certain fundamental stimuli. So, if men have confidence in their leaders, if they are convinced that the things for which they endure and fight are worthwhile, if they believe the effort they are making contributes definitely to the realization of their objectives, then their efforts will be voluntary, spontaneous, and persistent. The men of the Eighth Route Army had a term for this spirit of cooperation. They called it ‘gung ho’.'”
After Pearl Harbor, Carlson was put in charge of the Second Marine Raider Battalion and used the same egalitarian approach he had observed among the Chinese Communists. He even introduced gung ho as the unit’s battle cry. The Second Marine Raiders were employed successfully in the Pacific, including the raid on Makin Island in August 1942. That operation became legendary almost overnight and was turned into a Hollywood movie the following year, entitled, of course, Gung Ho!
What the public did not realize at the time, even if Carlson may have been aware of it, was the rather prosaic origin of the expression. Gung ho, or rather gong he, is actually an abbreviation of Zhongguo Gongye Hezuoye, or Chinese Industrial Cooperatives Association. Never mind. It’s entered into the canon of American slang, and will probably stay there for centuries to come.