Dear Matthew Alice: I have asked history professors, but they couldn't answer my question. I'm hoping you can. My question is, why do people yell “Geronimo!" when they jump out of an airplane or off of a cliff? — R.C., San Diego
Long story, R.C. And not as neatly documented as one might like, but I think we can satisfy your curiosity. Lay this one on the profs the next time you see them.
The first thing we have to do is explain why Geronimo was called Geronimo, since that wasn’t his real name. He was a Chiricahua Apache from the territory that’s now part of southern Arizona, and he earned his fame as a supernaturally fearless fighter in battles against Mexican and American troops in the mid- and late 1800s. The source of his bravery was a dream in which the spirits assured him that no bullet would ever kill him. Lucky for Geronimo, they were right. At the time, he was still known by his given name, Goyahkla, “One Who Yawns.” (Why do parents do that to kids?)
Though there’s no solid proof, based on stories told by Geronimo’s relatives and men
who fought with him, scholars believe he received his new name during a battle with Mexican troops somewhere in Sonora in the fall of 1850. Apaches usually attacked from ambush, but armed with his vote of confidence from the gods, Geronimo often led charges directly against the enemy. On this particular day, as the story goes, the Mexican troops suffered so many casualties they began warning their compatriots of an impending charge by yelling, “Cuidado! Geronimo!” Cuidado means “Look out!”; the Geronimo! part is less clear. One scholar speculates that either it was the closest the Spanish-speaking men could come to imitating the pronunciation of his Apache name or the Mexicans were invoking protection from San Geronimo (St. Jerome), whose saint day is September 30, possibly the date of the battle. In any event, the Apaches appropriated “Geronimo!” as their war cry and their leader’s new name. Better than riding into battle behind One Who Yawns, I guess. So assuming the story is accurate, the Apaches themselves were the first to use “Geronimo!” as inspiration when charging into danger. (Perhaps we should mention that Geronimo spoke Spanish, so it’s likely that some of his men did too.)
Cut to Georgia 90 years later, as America was entering World War II. According to the official history of the paratroop school at Ft. Benning, in 1941 Private Aubrey Eberhart was a trainee in the 501st Parachute Battalion. One day as he was about to leap out of a plane during a training exercise, he yelled “Geronimo!” to his fellow troopers “to prove that he had full control of his faculties,” to quote the history text. Soon enough everyone at ’chute school was saying it, and it traveled with them into war. One of the first mentions of “Geronimo!” in print appeared in Newsweek, November 30, 1942, to wit: “A defiant yell of‘Geronimo!’ echoed over North Africa last week. From low-flying transport planes, scores of American parachute troops...dropped down on Tunisia ahead of Allied ground forces.... The sky Jumpers were tough — tough as the wily old Indian warrior Geronimo that the Army fought in the Southwest during the 1880s and from whom the paratroopers got their battle cry.”
Unfortunately, Ft. Benning has no record of why Private Eberhart picked Geronimo from all of history’s famous fighters. For that explanation, we’ll have to gather a bit of wisdom from language mavens and try to fit it with the official Ft. Benning story. Word-origin sources offer two very different tales of “Geronimo!” The usually reliable Stuart Flexner, in his huge volume I Hear America Talking, says the term was first used at Ft. Benning during World War II by Cherokee Indians who, Flexner says, were numerous among the paratroopers at the time. An official spokesjumper at Benning snickers at the idea; no Cherokee parachutists in the early ’40s, he assures us. Besides, why would Cherokees yell an Apache name? More likely Cherokees would hurtle into the void with the name Sequoia on their lips.
The second story, though from a less reliable source than Flexner, is a better fit with the official Ft. Benning history. According to this version, one evening some troopers from Benning went to the movies to see Geronimo, a melodramatic grade-B Western about the famed Apache, made in 1939. (Presumably, our Pvt. Eberhart was among them.) Later the men began joking around, calling one another Geronimo, likening their parachute heroics to the Indian’s bravery. Then one of them got the idea of yelling “Geronimo!” as he hurled himself out of the plane. And the rest is history, professor.
We cringing groundlings were introduced to the term through wartime movies, cartoons, newsreels, and the popular press. Perhaps the only up side to war is that it usually enriches a country’s language.