I’m probably not alone in having been intensely curious as a child about what I assumed was called gorilla warfare on the news in the 80s. I think I was always sensible enough to know that it wasn’t war waged by great apes, as much I wished that were something that existed. I think at some point I thought it might have involved the massacre of gorillas, possibly around the release of Gorillas in the Mist. But I think it realised pretty soon that it was very human warfare, especially as they always showed human soldiers or jungles on the news (I imagine that gorilla warfare would be quite visible and thus provide some great footage). I still never knew quite what it was though, and never considered that the word I was hearing wasn’t actually gorilla.
Now I know better of course. I know the word is guerrilla, and probably have for about 20 years, if not more. And I know what it means. And because I’m always fascinated by languages (and mostly because I did French in school), I was able to figure out that the word is related directly to war. It’s from Spanish, which you may have guessed, and literally means little war, being a diminutive form of the word guerra. It first came into the English language in the early 19th century, during the Peninsular Wars (1808 – 1814), when the term was used to refer to Spanish peasants and shepherds annoying the occupying French forces. Since then it’s come to refer to any irregular, independent, small-scale military forces, the fighters within them, and the campaigns they’ve waged.
I quite like the term. It’s got the air of a plucky underdog about it (the little warrior that could). Plus, it sounds like gorilla, which is great. There is by the way, no link between the words guerrilla and gorilla, perhaps unsurprisingly. The world gorilla was first encountered in the Western world by Ancient Greeks reading a translation of Carthiginian navigator Hanno’s account of his voyage along the northwest coast of Africa, in which local interpreters identified gorillas as gorillai.
Still, gorilla warfare would be pretty cool…