The success at last week’s ARIA awards of Brisbane band Sheppard and their irresistible hit Geronimo got me thinking – why does anyone shout ‘Geronimo’ before a leap into danger? Wasn’t Geronimo a 19th-century Native American warrior? Was his name shouted then? Why did the practice persist? The amateur etymologist in me couldn’t resist doing a little sleuthing. Here’s what I’ve found. As is sometimes the case (eg, with the word ‘okay’), something brought the new expression about, but it’s likely it took a sequence of events to keep it alive.
Yes, Geronimo was a Native American warrior. He was born in 1829 and given the name Goyathlay (‘the one who yawns’) in the Mescalero-Chiricahua language. In 1851, after Mexican soldiers massacred his camp while he and other men were in town trading, he was involved in tracking and attacking the soldiers. He went into battle with a knife and, regardless of the gunfire, repeatedly threw himself at the enemy. This battle is where the name ‘Geronimo’ began, either as a repeated panicked call from the soldiers to Saint Jerome (‘Geronimo’ in Spanish) to save them from this apparently unstoppable warrior, or from their mispronunciation of his name.
From that time, there are stories (some might be true, some apocryphal) of his name being shouted out during the daring attacks and escapes that were a feature of his decades of armed resistance to the Mexicans and then to US forces. In 1886, his band of 38 became one of the last to end their resistance and surrender.
He became a prisoner, and his story might have ended there, but for an unexpected turn early in the 20th century. Well into his seventies, Geronimo became a celebrity. While still a prisoner, he was invited to participate in the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair and, with presidential permission, he did. From there, his fame grew. He rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s inaugural parade in 1905 and dictated an autobiography.
All this probably kept the interest in him and his story going after his death in 1909. With his story popular and well documented, in 1939 it was turned into a movie. There was also a song of the name around at the time.
Coincidentally, it was around this time that the parachute came to be seen not just as something to be used in emergencies, but also as a way to drop troops into action. Some of the first jumps occurred at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1940 and it was there that the troops – with the movie and/or song and Geronimo’s bold deeds in their heads – took to shouting ‘Geronimo’ when they jumped. By 1941, with the permission of Geronimo’s family, ‘Geronimo’ was incorporated into the insignia of the US Army’s first parachute regiment (the 501st infantry) and war coverage of the exploits of paratroopers had made their call of ‘Geronimo’ common knowledge.
That fixed it in the public mind for at least decades. And then Sheppard came along and pushed the name up in the public consciousness again.