A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Are "guerrilla" and "gorilla" related?

March 31, 2004

Dear Straight Dope:

The hosts of a local AM talk show recently joked about the phrase "guerrilla warfare," picturing gorillas with AK-47s. They next pondered the phrase's origin and challenged listeners to solve their problem. Why they couldn't do the research themselves I don't know. I've decided to show some initiative and ask you.

Clearly this program did not have a large Hispanic audience, because any Spanish speaker knows thatguerra means war and the diminutive guerrilla thus means little war, in particular a fast-moving skirmish type of warfare with hit-and-run raids. The term was soon applied to the fighter in such wars. The first recorded usage in English is by the Duke of Wellington during the Napoleonic Wars, when he wrote, "I have recommended to the Junta to set ... the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid." The fighters were Spanish, hence the use of a Spanish term.

Guerrillas and gorillas (originally at least) had nothing to do with each other, and not all English speakers pronounce them the same. But some etymologists think that the term gorilla in the sense of an underworld goon derives from a pun on guerrilla. Most others say the term derives directly from gorilla meaning ape, which has an interesting history itself.

The first written use of gorilla was probably in a fifth-century BC Phoenician inscription, commonly called Hanno's Periplus, which survives only in a confused Greek translation. In it, Hanno reports visiting an island in equatorial West Africa where he found "savage people, the greater part of whom were women, whose bodies were hairy, and whom our interpreters called 'Gorillas.'" It's not clear that Hanno was referring to what we call gorillas, as opposed to, say, chimpanzees or a band of human electrolysis candidates. At any rate, in 1847 when Savage and Wyman first scientifically described the gorilla (specifically the western lowland gorilla), they recalled this passage and gave the species the name Troglodytes gorilla. (Troglodyte means cave dweller --SDSTAFF Colibri informs us that such apes were thought to live in caves. The term still appears in the name of the chimpanzee, Pan troglodytes.) Hence the common English name for the animal.

Can't remember Troglodytes? No problem. Savage's beast now has a scientific name even a trog can remember: Gorilla gorilla gorilla. Give him a gun and a cause and he could be a guerrilla Gorilla gorilla gorilla.

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