The Grammarphobia Blog

Listen up, jarheads!

Q: I was reading your post about the use of “no sweat” in the Army in the 1950s. I was in the Marines in the ’70s and I remember another term, “listen up,” as in “Listen up, jarheads!” Did it originate with the military?

A: Yes, the expression “listen up” does indeed come from the military.

The Oxford English Dictionary labels it “slang” and says the usage originated in the US armed forces.

“Listen up” means “listen carefully, pay attention,” the OED says, adding that the expression is usually in the imperative (as in “Listen up!”).

The OED’s first citation is from The Killing Zone, William Crawford Woods’s 1970 novel about the Vietnam War: “Now you men knock off the goddam chatter in there and listen up.”

Another quotation comes from If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), Tim O’Brien’s memoir of his service in Vietnam in the late 1960s: “I got me two purple hearts, so listen up good.”

But the use of “listen up” soon spread beyond the military. In a 1980 On Language column in the New York Times Magazine, William Safire wrote:

“The expression ‘listen up’ is sweeping the pro-football coaching staffs, and is certain to embed itself in mucho macho lingo this year.”

By the way, the word “jarhead,” slang for a marine, originally referred to the mules used by the US Army as draft animals, according to the OED.

The dictionary’s ­earliest published citation for the word is from a 1916 issue of the Washington Post:

“Everyone has heard of the army ‘jarhead’ and his wiles, and the army man who attempts to teach the mule his job of hauling the guns, has a genuine proposition of life and near death facing him.”

So how did “jarhead,” a term for an Army mule, come to be slang for a marine? The etymology is unclear.

We’re not convinced by any of the theories: the shape of an old Marine hat, a marine’s buzz cut, the mule mascot at Army football games, etc.

The first citation in the OED for the use of “jarhead” to refer to a marine is from a 1944 issue of Reader’s Digest: “A ‘jar-head’ is a Marine.”

However, the Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang has this earlier citation from the 1943 movie “Gung Ho!” about the Marine raid on Makin Island in the Pacific during World War II:

“You silly jarhead. When are you gonna learn to fix a pack?”

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