Word Routes

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The "Geronimo" Code Name Controversy

One of the more unforeseen outcomes of the raid on Osama bin Laden's compound is a controversy over a code name used during the mission: Geronimo. Native American groups have protested the use of the code name as a denigration of a heroic historical figure, by equating him with a modern-day terrorist and mass murderer. Strong opinions on the topic were voiced yesterday at a Senate Indian Affairs committee hearing on combating Native American stereotypes. It's the latest unusual chapter in the long history of the name Geronimo.

Geronimo's name was itself born in the fog of war. The Apache warrior's native name was Goyathlay ("One Who Yawns"), but he heard Mexican soldiers call him Geronimo during the Apache Wars and adopted the name as his own. Geronimo is the Spanish version of Jerome (in Latin, Hieronymus), so one possible explanation is that the Mexican soldiers were shouting prayers to St. Jerome during clashes with the Apaches. Regardless of how the name originated, Geronimo achieved mythical status among Native Americans, as well as among the Mexican and American troops who he evaded for many years.

The modern military use of the name Geronimo began in 1940, when American paratroopers first used it as a battle cry. We know that the "Geronimo!" shout of the paratroopers was directly inspired by a Paramount western of that name. Soldiers from the parachute division at Fort Benning, Georgia went to see the film at the local movie theater the night before participating in their first "mass jump" in August 1940. After watching the movie, one paratrooper, Private Aubrey Eberhardt, told his buddies that he was going to shout "Geronimo!" as he jumped from the plane to demonstrate his courage. (There's a famous story about Geronimo, possibly depicted in the film, about him evading capture by making a daring leap off a cliff and shouting his own name.) Eberhardt followed through on his promise, and the other paratroopers joined in, turning it into a rallying cry.

News reports about the paratroopers shouting "Geronimo!" began appearing in the spring of 1941. Later that year, The New York Times described the image that the name Geronimo evoked for the 501st Parachute Infantry Battalion:

Geronimo was a tough and wily Indian chief who gave the Army a lot of trouble in the old days. His name, shouted just as they were about to jump, gave the men of the 501st something to say and think about; and it served, too, to epitomize the desired qualities of a parachutist — toughness and wiliness.

Even though the shouting of "Geronimo!" soon fell out of favor among the paratroopers (it was a bit of a giveaway under combat conditions), the name Geronimo lingered, adopted as a nickname by the 501st, as well as by the 1st Battalion Airborne, 509th Infantry Regiment, which has operated in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since the "tough and wily" Geronimo has become so enshrined in American military lore, the use of the code name in the bin Laden mission might seem a bit surprising: seen from one angle as a disparagement of the historical figure and from another as an elevation of bin Laden to the status of a brave and legendary warrior. Either way, of course, it's an unfortunate parallel to draw, even if — as some reports have it — Geronimo was the name of the overall operation, rather than the code name for bin Laden himself. The Defense Department told the Associated Press that "no disrespect was meant to Native Americans" and that "code names typically are chosen randomly so that those working on a mission can communicate without divulging any information to adversaries."

As yesterday's Senate hearing demonstrated, the controversy throws into stark relief the current ambivalence about co-opting Native American names for macho pursuits, especially for professional and college sports. Defenders of team names like the Washington Redskins and the Fighting Illini make the case that the naming is an homage of sorts, while critics say this kind of mascot-ization simply plays into age-old stereotypes and dehumanizes the Native American experience. Over the past few decades there has been a general move away from using these Native American names, at least at the high school and college level.

As I see it, the ill-advised repurposing of the name Geronimo in the bin Laden mission encompasses all of the conflicting tensions in the figure of the "noble savage." The unfortunate alignment of the name with bin Laden forces the "savage" reading to the fore, since it's deeply unpleasant to think of bin Laden as somehow "noble." But with the terse status report "Geronimo EKIA" ("Enemy Killed in Action") destined for the history books, the planners of the operation would have been well-served to consider how a military code word can serve as a potent cultural code word, too.

[You can hear me interviewed about the "Geronimo" controversy on the public-radio programs Here and Now (WBUR Boston) and The Brian Lehrer Show (WNYC New York).]


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Ben Zimmer is executive editor of Vocabulary.com and the Visual Thesaurus. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday May 6th 2011, 7:13 AM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
I wonder if shouting "Geronimo!" before taking a leap, or some other daring act, still survives among boys at play -- it was alive and well when I was a boy (early 1960s), whether the game was cowboys and Indians or something else.
Friday May 6th 2011, 10:48 AM
Comment by: Russell C. (Wooster, OH)
I also recall using "geronimo" as a kid in the 60s/70s but purely as a word meaning "here I go!" I had no idea at the time where the word originated and so there was never any affect attached to the word that even suggested it was offensive. And even when I learned, much later, that is was eponymous, any idea of it being an insult never entered my head.

My take on the current kerfuffle is that there is political capital being made here no behalf of those who want to elevate this to a discussion about prejudice and stereotypes. One of the best ways to create a new pejorative is to teach it to people. "Geronimo" only becomes offensive when someone makes that affective link and then brings it to someone's attention. For all we know, the use of "geronimo" as a code name was no more descriptive than "here we go."

I suppose "banzai!" (another "here I go" I used innocently as a child) would have set off a whole set of other complaints. Sadly, the process of pejoration is so powerful that it's hard to imagine any word that can't eventually become offensive to someone. And the critical feature is that its acceptance as such is a political and social issue, and such decisions are in themselves subject to prejudice and manipulation.
Friday May 6th 2011, 7:34 PM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Maybe my PC friends would enjoy it if our commandos yelled,
'We're Screwed!'during a covert action.
Though we might offend some hardware suppliers( listen, they can be rough bunch, and very, very sensitive about their hardware).
PS
If I was Mr.Geronimo I would feel Honored that brave fighters chose my name for a stealthy operation that took out public enemy number 1.
But thats me.
Friday May 6th 2011, 9:31 PM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Maybe Mr. Natural would feel honored, but none of us should propose to speak for how another group is impacted...when
you are in the group that is affected, your likes or dislikes need to be validated...each one of us probably experiences some area of insult from 'other' groups...I am all for being sensitive to what you say offends you...Russell C.
sounds as if he thinks he can educate the 'other' group into accepting a term, simply because he thinks it is
Inoffensive...I wish we would become more sensitive to others and not just hold onto something simply because we
meant no malace...why should Mr. Geronimo feel honored, why is the conclusion that the objection is 'for political
capital...I too thought code name Geronimo sounded as if it stood for bravery and heroism...but now I have to take
another look...many years ago I thought 'jap' was okay...only a few years ago I thought all brown people south of the Rio
Grand were all mexicans...my new Latin neighbor has straightened out my thinking...I just do not think an offense
should foisted on anyone...once they cry 'ouch', please let me be the last to inflict pain on anyone.
Saturday May 7th 2011, 7:50 AM
Comment by: Eric B. (Pittsford, NY)
It always seems to me to be the height of prejudice when we assign a reaction to a whole group of people. I don't believe for a moment that every native American is offended by the use of "Geronimo" in this way.

This kind of correction by self proclaimed spokespersons always seems kind of whiny to me and makes them sound like victims. Save your energy for the important fights, I say.
Saturday May 7th 2011, 8:48 AM
Comment by: modesto B. (san jose, CA)
Ideas and words have power. Consideration and respect for others is a good thing. The decision to use an honorable man's name in vain is a reflection on the author, not the hero. In the same way, reaction to insult is a reflection of character of the victim. What's with all this political correctness?
Saturday May 7th 2011, 9:09 AM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
I am more pained by what was done to Native Americans than how we 'take their names in vain'.
Saturday May 7th 2011, 9:16 AM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
I too, am growing weary with all the political correctness of our times.
No matter what is said or done, everyone feels they must jump on the band wagon and spew forth criticism.

We all are proud of who were are and should be proud, not sensitive.
Saturday May 7th 2011, 2:59 PM
Comment by: DavConn1 (North Hollywood, CA)
We're talking about two different subjects, here: cultural sensitivity (always good), and the mercurial nature of language.

It's always good to understand the roots our our language. I had not considered the origin of what I thought was a momentary call to heroism and I am glad to be educated. But it is the nature of language to "co-opt" the words of other cultures.

I am sensitive to the hurt someone might feel over this perceived hijacking of their culture, but to claim it is still your own and that it shouldn't be adopted or adapted by another culture is to deny the fact of language's constant evolution.
Sunday May 8th 2011, 1:49 AM
Comment by: Madrigal (CROYDON Australia)
My name is Political Correctness and I find it offensive that you use my name in negative ways.
Sunday May 8th 2011, 8:23 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Thank you DavConn1. Now I can look this another way. I must admit I don't really want to, but you make sense. Not
everything can be handled from the sensitivity angle. That is the only way I approached the Geronimo dissent. It is so
true that all of us at one time or another co-opt something from one another's culture. This is a great website to help
expand your outlook. Thanks for your input. Now I will work at co-opting your perspective, which is much different
from mine.
Sunday May 8th 2011, 9:58 AM
Comment by: Michael L. (Scotch Plains, NJ)
Thanks to all of you for the educated and lucid comments. I served in the 1st/509th Airborne and the Lore we were taught was that the name Geronimo took as long to say as the four second count by thousands we used in live jumps. I had 40 and used the traditional counting method. Enjoy your research and remember that the lame street liberal media is more interested in selling advertising time and space than factual reporting.
I sign off with the true rallying cry of Paratroopers everywhere:

"Airborne, All the Way."
Sunday May 8th 2011, 6:31 PM
Comment by: mac
if we're talking about political correctness; it has been a scourge. it is corrosive to inhibit speech, even if the intent of the speaker is malevolence. all the better to have people speak their thoughts so we can know who they are and what they are thinking.
and by the way, how do you bury one at sea? do you not submerge them? in bin laden's particular case, was it a submergency?
Sunday May 8th 2011, 7:11 PM
Comment by: tmack. (Nashville, TN)
Language is symbolic of our point of view and a proxy for our actions. Since language must always be decoded, it's legitimate to interpret the reasons that a white culture would mine Native American culture for its largely military terms. Native Americans resent their history being reduced in this manner and they have the right to protest it, just as anyone would have the right to object to his or her personal history being "coded" in a pejorative or misleading way.

Awareness of how our speech affects others is a good thing, particularly when it lessens conflict and resentment between people. Would you converse with a Native American male about his "squaw"? Do you think it appropriate for a soldier to refer to a Somalian as a "skinny"?

What's wrong with listening to how other people respond to how we talk about them and consider another point of view? It's not political correctness--it's diplomacy.
Monday May 9th 2011, 12:01 AM
Comment by: El (Los Angeles, CA)
Wow, tmack. I had to go all Tim McGraw on that one-"I Like it I Love it". And yes, I want some more of it. You and DavConn1 have made this discussion a delight. While I like it that DavConn1 forced me to look at "Geronimo" from
his perspective, it is always great to see that someone agrees with you heartfelt position. Native Americans, I hope
you're listening in. I love that we can all think different and yet remain civil. What a great classroom. Thanks VT.

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