This word for a firearm most likely comes from a Scandinavian woman’s name. It was and is common practice to name siege engines and cannon after women. Two famous examples are Mons Meg, the 15th century mortar that can be seen at Edinburgh castle, and Big Bertha of WWI fame. In this case, a weapon or weapons seem to have been named after a woman or women named Gunnhildr, and the name generalized to mean all such weapons.
Both gunnr and hildr mean war in Old Norse, making it an apt name for a weapon, even though there is no historical personage of significance named Gunhildr. There is at least one known example of a particular siege engine named Gunnhildr. A 1330 munitions list from Windsor Castle reads:
Una magna balista de cornu quae vocatur Domina Gunilda.
(A large ballista from Cornwall called Lady Gunilda.)
There is also this from a somewhat earlier poem The Song Against the Retinues of the Great People, written in the opening years of the 14th century:
The gedelynges were gedered Of gonnylde gnoste; Palefreiours ant pages, Ant boyes with boste, Alle weren y-haht Of an horse thoste.
(The lackeys were gathered out of Gunnild’s spark; the grooms and pages, and boys with their boasting, all were hatched of a horse’s dung.)
Gonnylde here may be a transitional form between Gunnhildr and the Middle English gonne, and gonnylde gnoste appears to be a reference to some type of explosive (gnást being Old English for spark).
Variations on gonne, in the modern sense of a firearm, appear in English records written in Latin and French starting in 1339. The first recorded use of of gonne in an English language text is by Chaucer in The Hous of Fame (c.1384):
Went this foule trumpes soun As swifte as pelet out of gonne Whan fire is in the poudre ronne.
(Went this foul trumpet sound As swift as a pellet out of a gun when fire is running in the powder.)
(Source: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition)
Copyright 1997-2014, by David Wilton