The sense of the word commando, meaning an elite soldier, appeared during the Second World War with the raids on occupied France by elite British forces of that name. Winston Churchill wrote to General Ismay on 2 July 1940:
If it be true that a few hundred German troops have been landed on Jersey or Guernsey by troop-carriers, plans should be studied to land secretly by night on the islands and kill or capture the invaders. This is exactly one of the exploits for which the Commandos would be suited.
But the word is much older and is South African, or Afrikaans, not British, in origin. It is a borrowing from Portuguese meaning a military command and used specifically to denote a party of men conducting a military raid or expedition, especially one by European colonists in southern Africa against native Africans. From G. Carter’s 1791 Loss of Grosvenor:
“A colonist,” says he, “who lives...up the country...intreats a commando, which is a permission to go, with the help of his neighbours, to retake his property.”
Afrikaans took the word from the Portuguese using it in the phrase on commando, referring to militia service. From William J. Burchell’s 1824 Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa:
The master himself was at this time absent on the Commando, or militia-service, against the Caffres in the Zuureveld.
The word again rose to prominence in the 1899-1902 Boer War, when it was used to refer to Boer militia units fighting the British. From the Westminster Gazette, 11 November 1899:
The President...has the right of declaring war and calling up one or more commandos.
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton