By Tom Anderson
CAT: Wait, I know this game. It's called cat and mouse, and there's only one way to win; don't be the mouse!
LISTER: What are you saying?
CAT: I'm saying, the mouse never wins. Not unless you believe those lying cartoons!
- Red Dwarf, “Gunmen of the Apocalypse” (1993)
When I was a child I enjoyed watching Hanna-Barbera’s “Tom and Jerry” cartoons, the never-ending struggle between a cat and mouse who brought cartoon violence to the point of sadism. While the duo are now less prominent than they were in the 1980s, The Simpsons has kept memories alive with their recurring ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ affectionate parody of the cartoons. As I grew older I learned that British soldiers were often called Tommies and that their German foes in World War II had frequently been dubbed Jerries. Knowing that many of the “Tom and Jerry” cartoons were rather old (indeed, the first one debuted in 1940) I wondered which usage had taken inspiration from which. In reality, as I discovered, things are rather more obscure and complicated than that—but it makes a fine topic for an Alternate History Consequences article!
First of all let’s look at the British Tommy. The full name of the generic British (perhaps specifically English) soldier is ‘Tommy Atkins’. There is a persistent theory that this stems from the Duke of Wellington meeting a particular soldier by that name in the 1840s; however, the name is at least a century older than that. A letter sent from rebellious Jamaica in 1743 notes that “except for those from N. America ye Marines and Tommy Atkins behaved splendidly”. (Note the contemporary contempt by the British for the quality of American colonial troops; the song ‘Yankee Doodle’, which was probably written not long after this, mocked said troops, but would be turned around and embraced by the Americans after victories in the Revolutionary War).
Regardless, it is clear that ‘Tommy Atkins’ was already a recognised metonym for British soldiers (specifically, as opposed to Marines) when George Washington was barely out of short trousers. The exact origins remain shrouded in mystery, though one oft-repeated story says that it was a generic fill-in name on Army forms as an example for soldiers who could only make an illiterate mark rather than signing their name. But this was well after the earliest recorded use, and it might have been chosen preciserly because it was already used in this sense. Regardless, the name has stuck around to the present day, particularly repopularised in 1892 by Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Tommy” (which depicts a British veteran refused entry to a pub, reflecting bitterly on how differently he is treated in wartime and peacetime). The name ‘Tommies’ became particularly attached to the veterans of World War I.
What about ‘Jerry’ for Germans? This appears to have a much more recent pedigree. There is some evidence it was around in World War I, but didn’t gain popularity then (when ‘Fritz’ was more popular as a euphemistic metonym). World War II was when ‘Jerry’ became the most common metonym for Germans (at least in the UK—America preferred ‘Krauts’). But where did it come from? There are two primary theories; either it’s simply a play on ‘Ger-man’, or it’s a vaguely insulting term stemming from comparing German steel helmets to chamber-pots, which were also called ‘jerries’. Why? The answer appears to be that it’s a contraction of ‘jeroboam’ used as a term for a large container. This still sticks around today as a measure of wine.
It is named for the Biblical King Jeroboam, who was the first King of the separate rebel Kingdom of Israel (based in Samaria) when the ten northern tribes rebelled against King Rehoboam’s regime in Jerusalem. Thereafter, the southern remnant became known as Judah. Why name a chamber-pot after a Biblical king? Jeroboam was a sinful idolater, like many Biblical kings of this period, and faced the wrath of God as a result. In 1 Kings 14:10 (KJV), Ahijah the prophet speaks the word of the LORD to Jeroboam’s wife: “Therefore, behold, I will bring evil upon the house of Jeroboam, and will cut off from Jeroboam him that pisseth against the wall, and him that is shut up and left in Israel, and will take away the remnant of the house of Jeroboam, as a man taketh away dung, till it be all gone.” Presumably this was the origin of the chamber-pot name. This appears to be the reason why Germans were Jerries.
Incidentally, this has nothing to do with the term often spelled ‘jerry-rigged’ (especially in American sources). Properly this should be ‘jury-rigged’, and is a nautical term describing when a ship’s mast or similar has been damaged and a temporary replacement has been rigged to allow it to carry enough sail to make it back to harbour for repairs. The meaning of the word is (again) debated, but possibly related to the French word ‘jour’ for ‘day’, i.e. implying the jury-rig only has to hold together for a day to make it back.
So that’s where British Tommies and German Jerries come from. What does this have to do with the Tom and Jerry cartoon? Er, well, oddly enough, apparently nothing. While there may have been some cross-fertilisation, it appears the military terms are from an entirely separate origin.
Pairing “Tom and Jerry” as names in fact comes from a popular humorous novel from British sports journalist Pierce Egan (1772-1849) whose writings did a lot to popularise the sport of boxing. Egan’s 1821 book was titled “Life in London, or Days and Nights of Jerry Hawthorne and his elegant friend Corinthian Tom”, a tongue-in-cheek look at the endless entertainments and class divisions of Regency London. Usually it was just called ‘Life in London’ and was illustrated by the brothers Isaac Richard and George Cruikshank. Some commentators believe that the book’s main characters, Tom, Jerry and Mr Logic, are based on Isaac Richard, George and Egan himself respectively. The book was a bestseller for its time and led to a stage adaptation by W. T. Moncrieff called “Tom and Jerry, or Life in London”. This snappier title cemented ‘Tom and Jerry’ in the public imagination—even more so in America, where the play was staged in New York from 1823 onwards, than in its native UK. Egan capitalised on this success by inventing an eggnog, brandy and rum Christmas cocktail dubbed the ‘Tom and Jerry’, which may have been devised specifically to promote the play. This was remembered in the United States long afterwards, and a century later was a favourite tipple of US President Warren G. Harding.
It was at this time, the 1920s, that Van Beuren Studios were one of the earliest studios producing sound cartoons. A young animated of Italian extraction named Joseph Barbera worked on projects for this company, including a cartoon that would star two misfits getting into scrapes in a style similar to the popular ‘Mutt and Jeff’ comic strip. The characters were named ‘Tom and Jerry’, probably after the cocktail rather than the original play or book by Egan (which was by this point less well remembered). The cartoon was not that successful at the time, Van Beuren ultimately failing to compete with bigger animators like the Fleischers and Disney.
In 1937, Joseph Barbera moved to California and joined Hollywood’s MGM, specifically their Ising animation studio. He was assigned to work with fellow animator William Hanna (whose parents were from Syria and Ireland, illustrating the American melting pot). Encouraged to create new cartoon characters (lawsuits were flying in all directions at this time over rip-offs), Hanna and Barbera came up with the idea of two equal characters who were always in conflict with each other. After rejecting the idea of a fox and dog combo, they settled on a cat and mouse. Initially they used the names Jasper and Jinx. After the first cartoon, “Puss Gets the Boot”, was a success, a studio contest was held to name the characters. This was won by animator John Carr, who suggested ‘Tom and Jerry’ after the cocktail. Supposedly there was no deliberate inspiration from Barbera’s earlier work, though this does seem a strange coincidence. (Fortunately for Hanna and Barbera, their Tom and Jerry became so much more popular that in the end it was the Van Beuren characters which were retrospectively renamed, to Dick and Larry!)
In 1958 Hanna and Barbera left MGM and founded their own animation studio, called simply Hanna-Barbera, responsible for influential series such as “The Flintstones” and “Yogi Bear”. These in turn went on to influence other animators and cartoons into the twenty-first century. And it all goes back to a book from 1821.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth