How did happy camper and not a happy camper originate?

I have been unable to find a definitive source for this phrase.

  • 3
    Please tell us what you have found, so that we won't duplicate your work. – rajah9 Feb 21 '15 at 0:39
  • My guess would be that the phrase originated in "summer camps" for kids. In the US it's common to send kids, from roughly age 5 up, to "summer camp" for a week or two. The kids live in barracks, do crafts and hikes and sing-alongs and swimming, while being herded around by "camp counselors" who generally are older kids -- roughly 17-24 years old. It's not unusual for some kids to be severely homesick or otherwise be unhappy with camp. These kids are literally "not happy campers". See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – Hot Licks Feb 21 '15 at 4:46
  • @rajah9 honestly I spent about 2 minutes googling before realizing I was woefully ill equipped to research etyymology. I strongly doubt my brief search would be worth recording. I just found some people guessing on mailing lists. – dss539 Feb 21 '15 at 18:48

In my opinion, camping is a miserable activity. A happy camper must be an unshakably happy person, and a lot of people seem to share my opinion:

obviously, the phrase unhappy camper refers to the homesick city kid who mopes about the countryside hating cows, cursing mosquitoes, refusing to make up a bunk, rejecting the hearty companionship of fireside storytelling and tossing his cookies with dismaying regularity.

The Autobiography of Lorenzo Waugh, written in February of 1883, and published in 1885, mentions happy campers on page 254:

Bouquets of beautiful flowers with their rich perfume grace our table, adjusted nicely by the hands of Mrs. Hittell and Katie. All seated, and thanks devoutedly tendered and the Heavenly Father's blessing invoked, all are helped, and such eating, and such rational free social pleasure is not to be conceived of anywhere only in such a group of happy campers.

In 1961, Camp Counseling: An Illustrated Book of Know-how for the Camp Worker highlighted enthusiastic distraction as the strategy to head off unhappy campers at the pass:

He is ever-mindful of the value of "'fun," for happy campers seldom become problems. If he is teaching a new skill, he is thorough, but patient and understanding, and proceeds by an informal, friendly manner. He knows the value of a laughter.

The phrase happy camper was used with a touch of sarcasm in the fictional account of two castaways in 1913 Everybody's Magazine - Volume 29 - Page 505, but castaways share in all the misery of campers:

One might have thought that we were a pair of happy campers enjoying a hard- earned vacation, rather than two forlorn maroons.

In 1978, we find the phrase "I am not a happy camper" used metaphorically in the dialogue of a Harlequin Romance novel, Sweet Twibby Mack:

"Call, but you can't fight union regulations."

"Still, their boss needs to know I'm not a happy camper."

Right. So take care of the call, then grab your clubs."

The oldest example for happy camper applied to non-campers seems to be a 1981 NY Times article about homeless people riding the bus. They were not happy, but they were homeless, which seems to be a lot like camping:

"It is not a group of happy campers that gets off the bus," wrote David Bird about homeless men in The New York Times in 1981.

According to Safire's Political Dictionary, the phrase mainstreamed metaphorically a few months later, when Mary McGrory applied the term in politics in maligning an optimistic political add from the Reagan campaign about Peoria, Illinois:

The happy campers in the commercial have few counterparts in the Peoria area today.

Politicians leveraged the word picture in the mid 1980's:

"I want the authors of the bill to know," warned Representative Thomas J. Tauke of Iowa, on the subject of toxic-waste financing, "that I am not a happy camper."

Representative Billy Tauzin of Louisiana agreed: "This is the most unhappy campsite in America."

From 1985, the metaphorical momentum of happy campers seems to increase steadily along side the unhappy campers.


Safire's Political Dictionary

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I believe it entered popular usage with a comedy TV show called "Hi-de-Hi" that was set in a Butlins-style holiday camp. From memory, a catch-phrase was "Hi-de-hi, happy campers!" but pinning down a definite connection is a bit elusive.

However, "happy campers" on its own became popular in the 1980s which correlates nicely with the Hi-de-Hi show being aired in the 1980s, and the phrase "hi-de-hi happy campers" gets plenty of google hits though none in BNC.

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To the references, you can add the use of the exact phrase "He's not a happy camper" nearly 1:45 into the 1947 movie Tycoon, starring John Wayne. It thus predates all television references.

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I don't know whether it's accurate, but according to Wiki answers, it's from an episode of the '80s sitcom Silver Spoons, where Ricky goes camping with his grandfather... I also don't know why some are just guessing...it doesn't seem like a phrase sufficiently uncommon to be from, say, a relatively unknown 1885 autobiography. I do know that it's an expression that makes my skin crawl, and instantly brands anyone who uses it in my mind as someone who uses trite, groan inducing, unimaginative cliches. On the other hand, I love the expression "happy as a clam", probably due to its (ironic?) absurdity.

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It started in California gold country; they named the town 'Happy camp' because of the gold. It's in northern California by the border on Highway 96.

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