Under the etymological “gun”

Gun. It’s such a cruelly simple word for a terrorizing technology that is senselessly and needlessly claiming too many American lives—59 alone, as we witnessed in the horrific massacre in Las Vegas this week. Where does this deadly word derive from?

The original “gun” woman

The word gun first appears in the English language in the 14th century, when firearms began spreading in Europe, apparently as a shortening of a Scandinavian women’s name. 

A munitions inventory of Windsor Castle, written in Latin around 1330, lists a certain kind of gunpowder-powered catapult: una magna balista de cornu quæ vocatur Domina Gunilda, or “a large cannon from Cornwall, which is called Lady Gunilda.” 

Yes, as far as we know, guns take their name from one, Lady Gunilda.

Gunilda comes from the Scandinavian Gunnild, which, as Peter McLure explains for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), was once a familiar female name in the 12th and 13th centuries. And militaries have often named great engines of war, McLure continues, after female names, “which has interesting psychological implications”—to say the least. The Scottish, for instance, named a notorious 15th century cannon Mons Meg while World War I saw the German howitzer, dubbed Big Bertha. The expression “mother of all bombs,” as I’ve recently explored, is a more recent example of this trend.

The given name Gunnild—bracketing off the problems of applying women’s names to weaponry—is an etymologically fitting name for firearms. It comes from the Scandinavian roots gunn- and –hildr, both meaning “war” or “battle.” Indo-European etymologists further connect gunn- to the English bane and Latin defend/offend, –hildr to the Germanic name Hilda (“battle-maid”). 

And in Norse mythology, we should remember, Gunnr was the name of a valkyrie, one of Odin’s handmaidens who chose which slain warriors would go to Valhalla, the feast-filled afterlife for heroes.

Danish illustrator Lorenz Frølich’s 1895 depiction of three valkyries, including Hild (“battle”), on the far left. (Wikimedia Commons)

Some scholars have suggested gun derives from the Old French mangonel, itself a military engine used to hurl stones, or engon, related to engine. However, other 14th-century records—such one reference to a gonnylde gnoste, or “Gunnild’s spark”—point back to the Gunnild hypothesis. The similarity in sound and sense of the French words appear to have reinforced the form of the English gun

By 1339, according to the OED, we find the shortened gonnes for medieval ballistas. By 1409, we find handgone for portable firearms. And by 2017? We find nearly one gun for every American.

But not that the word gun kills people. Actual guns do.

m ∫ r ∫

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6 thoughts on “Under the etymological “gun”

  1. A minor correction: de cornu means ‘of horn’ (thus, the substance of which the weapon was made).

    The Latin for ‘Cornwall’ (Cornubia) does not appear here.


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