The origin of the word gonzo is inextricably linked to writer Hunter S. Thompson, famed for his style dubbed gonzo journalism. Gonzo is a highly subjective, first-person style, characterized by distorted and exaggerated facts. Thompson first used the word in print in the 11 November 1971 issue of Rolling Stone:

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.

Thompson explained where he got the term a year later in Stop Presses by R. Pollack:

I ask Hunter to explain...Just what is Gonzo Journalism?..."Gonzo all started with Bill Cardosa [sic],...after I wrote the Kentucky Derby piece for Scanlan’s...the first time I realized you could write different. And...I got this note from Cardosa saying, ‘That was pure Gonzo journalism!’...Some Boston word for weird, bizarre.”

Corey Seymour and Jann Wenner’s 2007 Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson, gives a slightly different story about the origins of the term from Doug Brinkley, the literary executor of Thompson’s estate. Brinkley credits James Booker’s 1960 instrumental R&B song “Gonzo” as the inspiration. He says it was one of Thompson’s favorite songs and in 1968, when covering the Nixon presidential campaign and sharing a hotel room with Boston Globe columnist Cardoso, Thompson would play the song incessantly, much to Cardoso’s annoyance. Cardoso labeled Thompson “the Gonzo man” and used the word as an adjective for things associated with Thompson. Brinkley claims that Cardoso later made up the bit about it being a Boston regionalism.

According to a February 2002 article in BluesNotes magazine by Greg Johnson, James Booker took the name for his song from a character in the 1960 film The Pusher. That movie is based on Ed McBain’s (a.k.a. Evan Hunter) 1956 novel of the same name. In the novel, the character receives his nickname as a mishearing of the slang word gunsel, a gunman:

We know all about the gunsel routine and the way you goofed and called it “gonzo” and the way it brought down the house, and the way you were called Gonzo the rest of the night.

Some dictionaries speculate that the word may be from the Italian gonzo, meaning foolish, or the Spanish ganso, meaning goose or fool, but given the above this is probably not correct.

From Thompson’s usage, the term generalized to mean anything foolish or bizarre.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Seymour & Wenner, Gonzo: The Life of Hunter S. Thompson; Greg Johnson, “James Booker,” BluesNotes, February 2002.)

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