Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

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 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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