Jeremy Butterfield

Making words work for you

Guerrilla or gorilla? What is “guerrilla marketing”? And where does “guerrilla” come from?

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Do you puzzle over whether it is “guerrilla marketing” or “gorilla marketing”?

And if you write guerrilla, do you have to check how many r’s it has? (If you don’t, you’re a better speller than me.)

Warhol’s icon of Che Guevara, a legendary guerrilla.

In English it can be either guerrilla or guerilla, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) — mind you, the spelling with two r‘s is much more usual.

It’s not just English speakers who can’t decide how many r’s; some Spanish speakers have the same problem, even though it is a current Spanish word, and clearly must have two r’s for reasons we’ll go into in a minute.

And that uncertainty can get right under some people’s skin.

guerrilla_tatuaje

This hideous tattoo should read “Dios bendice mi familia” “God blesses my family”: b and v sound identical in Spanish.


In 2016, the official language body in Colombia launched a hashtag campaign offering the services – gratis — of professional tattooists to retattoo (makes my flesh crawl) misspellings shown on photos of their own tattoos that people were invited to submit. One of the orthographically challenged tattoos bore the misspelling – in Spanish, that is – guerilla, with a solitary letter r. 

Why “guerrila marketing”, etc.?

Like so many loanwords in English, guerrilla has taken on a life all of its own.

In warfare, guerrillas use unconventional tactics, fight alone or in small groups, do not recognize authority, and can pop up anywhere without warning. Since the late 20th century, the word has been freely used to apply those very characteristics to actions in peaceful spheres that flout established social norms.

Take guerrilla marketing or advertising, that is, marketing/advertising aimed at achieving maximum exposure at minimum cost, using innovative techniques and avoiding traditional media.

(The first citation for guerrilla advertising, in 1888, is a lot older than you might expect, but then the word seems to have gone quiet for nearly 80 years.)

I don’t see how you can get much more guerilla than this…

Guerrilla marketing…involving the dispatch of streakers or nearly-nude nutcases to high profile events with the company’s web address tattooed on bare skin.

Independent, 7 June 2005

New to me is guerrilla gardening:

Landless residents…decided to plant trees and other food crops on public land. Fortunately, the council did not object to this growing trend that is known as guerrilla gardening.

BBC ‘Countryfile’, Feb. 12, 2010

And if I could knit, I might be tempted by guerrilla knitting:

The woolly displays are part of the wider trend of guerrilla knitting, a type of benign vandalism in which enthusiasts leave knitted creations on lampposts, railings and road signs.

“Benign vandalism” is such a lovely oxymoron, don’t you think?

Also known as "yarn bombing." Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Also known as “yarn bombing.” Very pretty, but does it harm the trees?

Of course, thanks to that tricksy old sound the schwa, guerilla sounds exactly like…gorilla. If you don’t believe me, in phonetic notation they are both /ɡəˈrɪlə/. (That letter e doing a Yogic headstand is the schwa, and stands for the unstressed “uh” sound.)

Because they sound the same, people sometimes mistakenly write gorilla marketing. As a British online wag quipped: “Is that when you have King Kong promote your product?”

A Manchester-based (UK) SEO company punningly has the misspelling as its name, a gorilla as its logo, and the strapline “It’s a jungle out there.”

Koko, the "talking" gorilla, with her pet kitten.

Koko, the “talking” gorilla, with her pet kitten.


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Guerrilla: the word’s backstory

The word guer(r)illa has become so “English” that it is easy to overlook its Iberian origins, which date to the time of the Peninsular War (1808–1814) against Napoleon.

In 1808, Napoleon turned on Spain, previously his ally, an event which ushered in a prolonged period of violent and prolonged national and nationalist struggle against the French. In some ways, that period can be viewed as the first modern war of national liberation.

The central administration of the Spanish State was in complete disarray, and local juntas (another Spanish word) took it upon themselves to help organize resistance. That resistance was largely in the hands of civilians, loosely organized in militias, who avoided pitched battles and either harassed French troops on the march or fiercely defended cities under siege.

“The Defence of Saragossa”, Sir David Wilkie, 1828, The Royal Collection.

Those militias were known as guerrillas. Their heroic defence of their homeland (la patria), notably in the legendary siege of Saragossa, really captured the British public’s imagination.1

At the request of three of the juntas, the British sent troops under the command of the then Lieutenant-General Sir Arthur Wellesley,

Wellesley bedecked with medals, painted by Goya, and looking hesitant and untriumphal (1812-1814, National Gallery, London).

better known to us as the Duke of Wellington . It is in his dispatches of 1809, according to the OED (which gives only the year, not the month or day) that the word makes its first appearance in English.

I have recommended to the Junta to set…the Guerrillas to work towards Madrid.

The meaning here as defined by the Oxford Dictionary Online is “A member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces.”

“little war”

The word for “war” in Spanish is guerra (ignore the u, and pronounce the vowels as in guess). Adding –illo or –illa, classed as a “diminutive suffix”, to a word often implies smallness or littleness, so guerrilla is in very literal terms a “little war.”

According to the Spanish Royal Academy’s historical corpus, the word first appears in the classic account of the Spanish conquest of the Americas, Fray Bartolomé de las Casas’ History of the Indies meaning precisely, and somewhat disparagingly, a “little war”, for example:

They had some little wars about the borders and boundaries of their lands and dominions, but all of them were like children’s games and were easily calmed.”2

A traditional Spanish dish makes use of the same suffix: gambas al ajillo, succulent prawns in a tangy garlicky sauce. Ajo is the word for “garlic”, and ajillo refers to chopped garlic and the sauce made from it. And of course, just about any British tapas restaurant is bound to offer Spanish omelette, tortilla, which adds –illa to the word torta.

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!

Gambas al ajillo. Yum!


1The Scottish Sir David Wilkie, who was the “Royal Limner” (i.e. painter) in Scotland, was one of the first professional artists to visit Spain after the War of Independence, and was deeply influenced by seeing the paintings of Velázquez and Murillo. 
2Algunas guerrillas tenían sobre los límites y términos de sus tierras y señoríos, pero todas ellas eran como juegos de niños y fácilmente se aplacaban.

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Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

7 thoughts on “Guerrilla or gorilla? What is “guerrilla marketing”? And where does “guerrilla” come from?

  1. “Guerrilla”. Do you remember how Angela Rippon, newsreader, used to pronounce it gerr-eeya and took what seemed like 5 seconds to pronounce it?
    “Benign vandalism” is a good oxymoron, isn’t it? Killed by “friendly fire”?…not so much

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    • I can’t say I do, but she was obviously trying to be “auténtica” or some such. The word is sufficiently anglicizied, IMHO, not to need the faux-Hispanism. Glad you like “benign vandalism.” Agree about “FF.”

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  2. Oddly enough, most of the British people I know pronounce Guerilla /ɡəˈrɪʎə/ while most of the Spanish I know pronounce it /ɡɛriʝa̠/.

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  3. Oh, you must move in very refined circles. Dictionaries suggest it should be pronounced as you might expect, unless, of course, you are referring specifically to Colombians, etc., and have some command of Spanish. Sure, the Spanish pronunciation is as you suggest.

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  4. You, the British, are incredible. You don’t have a proper word for “guerrilla” or “golpe de estado”, instead you use the Spanish word and the French one, which means you’d never consider having anything like that in your home. Jajaja

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  5. I like that I can do a search on Google for marketing related topics and never ever run out of beneficial articles to read. At the end of the day, I’m simply attempting to find out whatever about marketing and how various companies are using it.

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