The phrase “gung ho” is an Anglicized version of a Chinese expression. It was adopted as a slogan by a U.S. Marine battalion working in China during World War II. A popular film about the battalion brought the phrase into common use in America and the rest of the English-speaking world. Its original English meaning was to be brave and enthusiastic in the face of danger. Later, it came to be used ironically, meaning someone who maintains such enthusiasm even when there is no reason for it.
During the 1930s, China was involved in a war with neighboring Japan and struggling with the problems of industrialization and a burgeoning population. Aided by sympathetic Americans, Chinese communists created an initiative to aid industrial collectives, or cooperatives. The Chinese phrase gōngyè hézuòshè was adopted as a slogan for this initiative; it means "work together,” a concept important to socialist and communist ideals. The phrase was shortened and Anglicized to “gung ho” for easier use by English speakers involved with the plan.
During World War II, U.S. Marine commander Evans Carlson was given charge of the 2nd Marine Raider Division, later known as Carlson’s Raiders. These raiders were similar to the Special Forces units of the modern U.S. military. They were stationed in China for clandestine raids against Japanese-held territory. To aid troop morale, Carlson adopted the slogan “gung ho,” using it to mean dedicated and unquestioning loyalty to the military command. The slogan was soon used by other Marine units as well.
In 1943, while World War II was still going on, Hollywood produced a film about the exploits of Carlson’s Raiders. The movie, called Gung Ho!, was wartime propaganda, a popular genre for audiences on the American home front. It helped give the term widespread use among the American public. After the war was over, the U.S. and its allies became concerned with opposing communist regimes, a period known as the Cold War. Many in the U.S. military had gung-ho attitudes toward ending communism; by then, few realized that the phrase had originated with the early Chinese communists.
Anti-communist sentiment remained high among military leaders and other Americans throughout the following decades. Others felt that military action should be a last resort. They used the phrase “gung ho” ironically; for example, the character played by Sterling Hayden in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 film Dr. Strangelove was often described by critics this way. The character, an unbalanced military commander, risks a worldwide catastrophe by provoking an attack on the Soviet Union. The term “gung ho” soon took on its current meaning, as someone enthusiastic about his or her duty to the point of becoming overzealous.