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Question: I've asked a number of Marines, but no one knows (or wants to admit they know) the origin of "jar-head," used as a slang name for a Marine.

Answer: Exactly how this sense of "jarhead" originated isn't known. One theory we've read is that Marines are known as "jar-heads" because of their extremely short haircuts (precisely how short hair makes your head look like a jar is not explained).

But our evidence points to a different origin. As early as 1918, before the term's use as a name for a Marine, "jarhead" was being used to mean "mule." The name may have been drawn from the mule's unthinking capacity to follow commands and perform hard labor, or perhaps from its legendary stubbornness, with the uncomplimentary underlying notion being that a mule's head is as empty as a jar. In any case, "jarhead" came to be applied especially to the mules that were used in the armed forces.

Of course, mules came to be used less and less as motorized transportation expanded. By 1946, the Sierra Club Bulletin lamented, "Few of our motor-minded city-bred soldiers knew the fuel consumption, rated-load capacity, and first echelon maintenance of a jarhead." As the use of "jarhead" for an Army mule faded, it appears that Marines began to refer affectionately to themselves as "jar-heads," perhaps comparing their own duties to the labor of the old mules.

At first "jarhead" was usually considered an insult when used by non-Marines, but with its recent use by popular writers like Tom Clancy and its appearance in mainstream publications such as Newsweek, there is reason to suppose that this stigma has begun to fade.

Question: Do the verb "to orient" and the noun "the Orient" have any connection?

Answer: Our noun "Orient" comes from the Latin adjective "oriens," derived from the present participle of the verb "oriri," "to rise or come forth." Its earliest English sense is "the place on the horizon where the sun rises when it is near one of the equinoxes" - in other words, the east. Thus it has come to be used to refer to the Asian countries to the east of Europe, in which use it is usually capitalized.

With the spread of Christianity into Europe, it became customary to build churches with their longitudinal axes pointing eastward toward Jerusalem. This practice gave rise to the use of "orient" as a verb meaning "to cause to face or point toward the east." This sense then became generalized to yield the sense "to set or arrange in any determinate position, especially in relation to the points of the compass." Nowadays we say that maps are "oriented" toward north, but before the widespread use of the magnetic compass enabled people to determine readily the direction of north, many European maps had east at the top, since this direction could be established by watching the sun rise, or on cloudy days simply by noting the orientation of the nearest church.