R.I.P. Bill Cardoso, the Writer Who Gave Us “Gonzo”

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  03.12.06 | 1:43 PM ET

I’d never heard of journalist Bill Cardoso until I saw his obituary in today’s Los Angeles Times. In 1970, Cardoso congratulated his friend Hunter S. Thompson on an article Thompson had written about the Kentucky Derby for Scanlan’s Monthly magazine. The article was, Cardoso wrote in a note to Thompson, “pure gonzo.” Thompson grabbed the word “like a hungry dog and ran with it,” remarked his friend, artist Ralph Steadman.

The word “gonzo” had been used before—it was the name of a 1960 jazz piano song, for example—but not to describe a form of journalism.

Writes the Times’ Elaine Woo, Thompson and Cardoso both pointed to other possible origins of the word:

Thompson claimed to know the answer, though perhaps he was only pretending. “It’s a Portuguese word,” he told Rolling Stone in 1996, “and it translates almost exactly to what the Hells Angels would have said was ‘off the wall.’ “

Cardoso’s origins were Portuguese, but he never pinned “gonzo” on that heritage. In “Who Killed Hunter Thompson?”—the facetious title of a collection of essays edited by Bay Area journalist Warren Hinckle that will be published in June—Cardoso offered his version, but it only deepened the mystery: “Gonzo,” he wrote, “is of French Canadian origin, a corruption of gonzeau, which is itself a corruption of the old Dominican Republic dandy inside-baseball phrase sendero luminoso, roughly meaning ‘Signify the batsman electric to take two, then hit to right, sending the spheroid beyond your grandmother’s paisley shawl.’ That’s my claim, see, and I’m staking to it. But what the hell do I know?”

According to the obit, Cardoso was “an elegant stylist whose work appeared in such publications as the Boston Globe, Rolling Stone, Ramparts and Esquire.” He was 68 when he died Feb. 26 of cardiac arrest.

Related on World Hum:
* R.I.P. Hunter S. Thompson, Gonzo Traveler
* Hunter S. Thompson to Paul Theroux: “We’ll Offer a Course on Travel Writing”

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