Monday 17 December 2018

shock and awe

Gleaned from the latest instalment of Kevin Stroud’s excellent History of English podcast, our generic word for firearm entered the English language in the early fourteenth century as gunpowder was gradually making its way to Western Europe as the namesake of a very large and formidable catapult inscribed in the armorial inventory of Windsor Castle called Domina Gunilda.
This practise of naming munitions and engines of war after women is an ancient tradition that still echoes today and sure carries some problematic psychological associations—though recalling that the common female name of Norse extraction might be somewhat fitting, itself derived from Gunnr the Valkyrie, meaning battlefield and the handmaid of Odin assigned the onerous task of separating the heroic from the cowardly casualties and determining who gets into Valhalla. It is unclear if Lady Gunilda herself actually used any of the newly introduced gunpowder as a range-multiplier (early cannons, like their Chinese predecessors relied mainly on their ability to scare and disorientate belligerents by its noise rather than projectiles) though other, contemporary documents mention “gonnylde gnoste”—that is, Gunnild’s spark—and whatever the firepower, the written use of gonnes and handgonne appears shortly thereafter.