What’s in your trunk?
Dear Word Detective: I recently looked up the word “gonzo” (as in “gonzo journalism”) and was surprised to see the the origin of the word was listed as “unknown.” I would think that it likely originated in the beatnik or jazz communities. Since I couldn’t find it in your archives, could you shed some light on this question, man? — Michael Hooning, Seattle, WA.
Go ahead, make me feel old. It’s bad enough that this year marks the 40th anniversary of Woodstock (the real one) in 1969, which I attended, if that’s the right word. Incidentally, I noticed the other day that Target has apparently bought the rights to the Woodstock legend (or whatever), and is now offering everything from toothpaste to beach sandals festooned with that dippy bird-on-a-guitar logo.
I mention Woodstock because the word “gonzo” first appeared in print just two years later, in 1971, in an article written by journalist Hunter S. Thompson for Rolling Stone magazine describing two trips to Las Vegas taken by Thompson and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta. Thompson’s article was later expanded and published in 1972 as “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream.” No brief summary can possibly do justice to “Fear and Loathing,” but Wikipedia’s stab at a synopsis is as good as any: “The [story] revolves around journalist Raoul Duke and his attorney, Dr. Gonzo, as they arrive in 70’s Las Vegas to report on the Mint 400 motorcycle race. However, they soon abandon their work and begin experimenting with a variety of recreational drugs, such as LSD, cocaine, mescaline, and cannabis. This leads to a series of bizarre hallucinogenic trips, during which they destroy hotel rooms, wreck cars, and have visions of anthropomorphic desert animals, all the while ruminating on the decline of American culture.” The book was an immediate best seller and remains a seminal work in what became known as “gonzo journalism,” defined dryly by the Oxford English Dictionary as “a type of committed, subjective journalism characterized by factual distortion and exaggerated rhetorical style.” “Gonzo” is also used as an adjective meaning “bizarre” or “crazy.”
In addition to using “Dr. Gonzo” as the pseudonym of his companion in the book, Thompson used the phrase “gonzo journalism” in the book to describe his reporting methods (“But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism”).
For those of us who lived through the period, “gonzo” will always be associated with Hunter Thompson. But Thompson himself never claimed to have coined “gonzo.” He credited Boston Globe editor Bill Cardoso with using “gonzo” to describe an article Thompson wrote in 1970 (entitled, in classic Thompson style, “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”), and reported that, according to Cardoso, “gonzo” was “some Boston word for weird, bizarre.”
“Gonzo” also happens to be an Italian word meaning “fool or simpleton,” and that Italian “gonzo” may well be the direct root of Cardoso’s “gonzo.” But there are other possible sources. There was a hit song in 1960 entitled “Gonzo,” as well as a character by that name in a 1960 movie, and, perhaps most bizarre given Thompson’s use of the word, a Muppet (first appearing in 1970) on the TV show “Sesame Street” named Gonzo the Great. Tracking the exact pedigree of Thompson’s “gonzo” is thus probably impossible. But I can testify that in the late 1960s and early 70s, “gonzo” was definitely in the air.