"guerrilla: a member of a usually small group of soldiers who do not belong to a regular army and who fight in a war as an independent unit" (M-W)

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Surely there are specific historical reasons behind the peaks #1, #2 and #3, and it is not difficult to see that the peaks #2 and #3 are connected respectively to the WW2 and to the Vietnam War.

I don't know what is due peak #1, neither I want to know that.

Instead I would like to know the reason why, contrary to what happened during WW2 and VW, during 1860 to 1870 the plural guerrillas was more common that the singular.

  • From where you got this graph?
    – Sweet72
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:08
  • 1
    – mplungjan
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:11
  • @Sweet72: books.google.com/ngrams/…
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:28
  • 2
    Peak 1 seems to be the American Civil war. You can click on the links below the graph to see the sources. A typical source: "Most of the leaders of the guerrillas with whom we have to contend, I have frequently heard, hold commissions from the Confederate government, or the fugitive Governor of Missouri." Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:32
  • 2
    Knowing what caused peak #1 may help why the plural was more common. Four wars took place: French occupation of Mexico (1863–1867), American Civil War (1861–1865), Paraguayan War (1864–1870), with a fourth, the Second Opium War ending on 18 October 1860.
    – Hugo
    Commented Sep 24, 2013 at 13:33

3 Answers 3


I would think it would be that in 1860 one might have encountered guerrillas on the battlefield, but in 1960 one encountered guerrilla warfare.

War in 1812 or 1860 is a structured thing with lines of people and lots of formality. War in 1960 is a much different beast.


This Ngram shows that most of the increase of the form guerrilla since 1820 comes from the use of guerrilla as an adjective. The phrase "guerrilla warfare" seems to be a large part of this increase, but by no means all of it. (Another Ngram.)

  • I didn't know you could do that. I racked my brains to explain why there was a difference and find a way to nudge my idea. Well done!
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Sep 25, 2013 at 13:04

I was wondering whether a fighter or a combatant in a guerrilla army could be defined as being a soldier or a partisan; when looking up Guerrilla Warfare in wikipedia I found that guerillas used in the plural, refers only to the members of this military force.

The term means "little war" in Spanish, and the word, guerrilla (Spanish pronunciation: [geˈriʎa]), has been used to describe the concept since the 18th century, and perhaps earlier. In correct Spanish usage, a person who is a member of a guerrilla is a guerrillero ([geriˈʎeɾo]) if male, or a guerrillera if female. The term "guerrilla" was used in English as early as 1809, to describe the fighters (e.g., "The town was taken by the guerrillas"), and also (as in Spanish) to denote a group or band of such fighters. However, in most languages guerrilla still denotes the specific style of warfare. The use of the diminutive evokes the differences in number, scale, and scope between the guerrilla army and the formal, professional army of the state.

Looking further, I found the term "guerrilla fighters" received 64,900 results on Google books, whereas guerrillas 1860 received 44,800 results results and guerrillas 1970 received 125,000 results. How many of the latter are actually reference books tracing the history of guerrillas and guerrilla warfare and not the actual guerrillas fighting between 1960 and 1970s is open for debate.

It could be that nowadays, the term geurilla fighters has superseded guerrillas in usage and this might, in part, account for the disparity in frequency.

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