Oh no! Who is not a happy camper?! This expression probably grabs my attention more than it does for others because as a camp director, everyone needs to be a happy camper!
It did get me thinking… how did this expression make it into everyday conversation? It is an obvious thing to say at summer camp or while camping, but I doubt in mid-October that this Manhattan woman was referring to her friend in the woods somewhere.
A little research shows that the expression became popular outside of summer campers in the early 1980’s. Here’s an article about it from New York Times Magazine – http://www.nytimes.com/1988/12/25/magazine/on-language-the-unhappy-campers.html
“Writing in 1982 about a suspiciously upbeat Republican TV spot in an area of high unemployment, the columnist noted, ”The happy campers of the commercial have few counterparts in the Peoria [Illinois] area today.’ Within a few years, People magazine was listing “happy camper” as current slang about attitudes…”
This answer works for me. I just hope that in camps, in Manhattan, and otherwise, we can talk more about ‘happy campers’ than ‘unhappy campers.’