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Thursday, June 9, 2016

Gorillas and guerrillas

Gorilla. Do not confuse with guerrilla.

There's been much in the news about gorillas lately, so of course you want to know why they are called that.  This is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:
An alleged African name for a wild or hairy man (strictly for the female only), preserved (in accusative plural γορίλλας) in the Greek account of the voyage undertaken by the Carthaginian Hanno in the 5th or 6th cent. BC; hence adopted in 1847 as the specific name of the ape Troglodytes gorilla (now Gorilla gorilla), first described by Dr. T. S. Savage, an American missionary in Western Africa.
Do not confuse gorillas with guerrillas. 

guerrilla /ɡəˈrɪlə/ 


(also guerilla)
  • 1. a person taking part in an irregular war waged by small bands operating independently, often against a stronger, more organized force, with surprise attacks etc.: [also attributive] : guerrilla warfare.
 You will notice that the alternate spelling "guerilla" is given by dictionaries, but this spelling (which is also the spelling used in French) is MUCH less common than "guerrilla". 

The word comes from Spanish guerrilla, a diminutive of guerra (war), and was first used to describe Spanish fighters in the Peninsular War against Napoleonic occupation in the early 1800s.

Since then, this word has taken on a life of its own, and has since the 1970s become an adjective
"Designating activities conducted in an irregular, unorthodox, and spontaneous way, without regard to established conventions, rules, and formalities, as guerrilla advertising, guerrilla cooking, guerrilla filmmaking, etc."
Surprisingly, though, the first example of this adjectival usage is earlier than you would think:

1888   Polyclinic Nov. 134/2   The so-called pure pepsins..which, by a system of guerrilla’ advertising..have been foisted upon the deceived medical profession.

 My favourite examples of this are:

guerrilla gardening  n. gardening on sites that the gardeners are not authorized to use (typically land which has been abandoned or otherwise neglected), esp. as a political or environmental statement.
guerrilla knitting  n. street art consisting of colourful knitted or crocheted items and motifs attached to public objects and monuments; the action of decorating objects or monuments in this way; cf. yarn bombing
"Who yarn-bombed that tree? Not moi!" *whistles nonchalantly*
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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.