Eugene the Jeep was the Snoopy of his day and possibly inspired the Jeep SUV
We can all agree that Popeye had the strangest "dog" in cartoon history.
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"The Jeep's a magical dog and can disappear and things" Popeye explains to Olive Oyl when he introduces Eugene the Jeep in the 1938 cartoon "The Jeep." It was the first screen appearance of the strange "dog." The creature had first appeared in print two years prior, in the Thimble Theatre comic strip, which had a much more convoluted and fantastical explanation of the Jeep.
The Jeep returned to animation in 1940, in the Fleischer Studios short "Popeye Presents Eugene the Jeep." Here, Popeye received a mysterious package that contained the even-more-mysterious animal. It's not exactly a dog, but a dog-sized creature from another dimension.
Popeye discovered that Eugene can disappear in an emergency and see into the future, making him one of the most magical dogs in cartoon history.
In the book Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language, author Patricia T. O'Connor documented that Eugene was an immediate hit with Popeye fans, explaining that "Eugene became the Snoopy of his day."
That comparison goes beyond just terms of lovability and extends to marketing.
Popeye's leopard-spotted pet with a giant red nose, like Snoopy today, became a mascot painted on the side of trucks, planes and boats, a character associated with giant corporations and even the U.S. government.
In those early days of the character, Eugene the Jeep was everywhere, and all of these vehicles that had his face painted on the side became colloquially referred to as "Jeeps" because of the dog.
That's right, Popeye's weird little "dog" is most likely the origin point of the word "Jeep," the kind of general-purpose, all-terrain vehicles that we now associate with shows like M*A*S*H.
Origins of the Specious makes the case that these Jeeps casually took their name from the cartoon critter.
It happened in 1941 when the U.S. Army hosted an unveiling of the first-ever jeep prototype, manufactured by Ford and a company called Willys-Overland. Reporters attending wanted to know what to call the vehicle.
"You can call it a Jeep," one of the company's publicists said.
From there, Willys-Overland began officially using that name, and eventually, the company got bought by Chrysler, who took over the trademark and evolved it into a popular SUV.
On Popeye, Eugene was quirky in other ways than his magical powers. For one thing, he liked to feast on delicate orchids. But the most memorable aspect was definitely his "bark," which wasn't a woof, but repeating the sound "jeep, jeep."
You see, Jeep wasn't just what we called Eugene's "species," it was also the only sound the character made, repeated often on the show. You'd have to stick your fingers in your ears to claim you never heard it, and back then, Eugene was everywhere you looked.
We should note that this Jeep terminology history is disputed, and some linguistic-minded folks refuse to connect Eugene the Jeep or his plane, train and boat "jeeps" to the identically-named all-terrain vehicles that came later. The official etymology is still hotly debated.
What's kind of indisputable, though, is the timeline. Upon hearing Eugene say, "Jeep, jeep," Popeye famously asked in a 1936 comic, "What's a Jeep?"
The very next decade, World War II vehicle manufacturers took the word and ran with it, debuting a different kind of "Jeep" in the real world. The CJ ("Civilian Jeep") hit the market in 1945, produced over the years by Willys, the American Motor Corporation and Chrysler. The popular Wrangler was introduced in the 1987 model year. Today more than 2,400 dealerships have secured the rights to sell Jeeps on their lots.
What do you believe? "Jeep, jeep," does Eugene hold the keys to the history of the Jeep?