Stupid Question ™
May 24, 2004
By John Ruch
Q: The US Marine Corps uses the term “gee-dunk” for sweets or candy. What is the origin of the term, and is it only used by the Marines?
—Steve Iwaskey, Columbus, Ohio
A: You were wise to come to Stupid Question with this one, Steve. While there is very little information about the history of this word, most sources still manage to screw it up. We, of course, cannot be fooled so easily.
“Gedunk,” as it is most commonly spelled, is admittedly a tough nut to crack, like most internal military slang that hasn’t really filtered into the outside world. Indeed, a full delving of its secrets will have to come in a follow-up column, because my sources for obscure comic-strip information have been slow on the draw (as we like to joke).
Yes, comic strips—that’s where the word almost surely comes from. Here are the other un-mixed-up facts as we know them:
Gedunk (usually pronounced “gee-DUNK” with a hard “g”) is both Marines and Navy slang for candy or snacks, and by extension the shipboard or base shop that sells such items. It apparently originally referred specifically to ice-cream. By further extension, greenhorn sailors are sometimes called “gedunks,” possibly because snack food is associated with kids.
While both the Marines and the Navy use the term, we all know which service is the always first to hit the beaches. Yes, the Marines can claim credit for the first known military use of the term, in a 1931 issue of their “Leatherneck” magazine.
You can imagine the welter of inane origins that have been invented to explain this weird word.
The most sensible wrong guesses presume it’s one of the military’s ubiquitous acronyms being pronounced as a word. “G.D.” (for a presumed “General Dairy”) is the best I’ve seen. It’s still wrong.
Another guess is that it’s an imitation of the sound of some machine in an ice-cream or snack shop. More on that later.
And, of course, there are suppositions that it’s a foreign word—the last refuge of a bad slang etymologist. People, when’s the last time you heard a Chinese word and just started using it? Uh-huh. So why do you think anybody else does?
Gedunk actually comes from the newspaper comic strip “Harold Teen,” which was using the word in association with ice cream by at least the late 1920s. Feel free to be disturbed at the idea that the military was shipping out kids who were still reading “Harold Teen.”
Almost all of the above information comes from etymology J.E. Lighter and his former work on Random House’s “Historical Dictionary of American Slang.” The information is widely repeated everywhere from the Naval Historical Center on down. And yet, it is still often presented incorrectly.
Many people don’t realize that “Harold Teen” was not a military comic strip, and that the phrase therefore doesn’t have a military origin. Others report “The Geedunk” [sic] was the name of a store in the strip, which is untrue.
“Harold Teen” (originally, “The Love Life of Harold Teen”) by Carl Ed started running in the Chicago Tribune in 1919 and was nationally syndicated until Ed’s death in 1959. It’s credited with originating or popularizing many slang terms.
The titular teenager and his pals hung out at a shop called The Sugar Bowl, whose proprietor, one Pop Jenks, served an extremely popular dessert called the “Gedunk Sundae.” That’s where the word comes from.
It’s unclear what “gedunk” meant in the strip, or if it was ever explained at all. It could well have been just a funny-sounding fantasy word. Lighter speculated it was an imitative play on the sound of ice cream being “dunked” into soda; but the strip’s Gedunk was a sundae, not a soda.
Various possessors of “Harold Teen” archives will hopefully be reporting back soon, and I’ll update this information then.