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Setting the Record Straight About Native Languages: "Geronimo"

Q: Why do people shout 'Geronimo!' when they jump off something high or do something else dangerous? Was this an Apache battle cry, or a reference to something the historical Geronimo really did?

A: No, this common use of the name Geronimo comes from the US military during World War II. Paratroopers would shout "Geronimo!" as they jumped from their planes. Many of them claimed this was because the Apache chief himself bellowed this out as a war cry, and that he once evaded the US Army by leaping his horse off a cliff into a river near their air force base in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. These are highly unlikely stories. Geronimo really did evade the US Army on many occasions and was well-known for daring feats, but all of them happened in Apache territory in Arizona, New Mexico, and Mexico. Geronimo was only sent to Oklahoma near the end of his life, as a prisoner of war, and did not do any fighting or escaping while he was there. Furthermore, "Geronimo" is what the Spanish called him (his own name was Goyathlay), so he would never have shouted it in battle or while performing acrobatics on horseback.

Like most military legends, this one probably has a less mysterious explanation. One veteran quoted in the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins remembered it this way: "In the early days of the 82nd Airborne, the men used to go to the nearby movie in Lafayetteville. During the week scheduled for the division's initial jumps, they saw a movie named "Geronimo." Anyway, one guy hollered the name and one of those things no one can explain happened. The whole division took it up and from them it spread to the later-activated airborne forces." This lively online account of the same incident has more detail including the name of the private who started the tradition. The stories told by these veterans about a paratrooper's act of bravado inspired by a movie seem highly plausible in comparison to an untraceable legend about an Apache warrior shouting out the wrong name in the wrong state.

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