With reference to the fact that when two male gorillas confront each other, they throw dust in the air to distract one another, the American-English expression gorilla dust denotes something intended to divert attention from something more important.
For example, the following is from Mean and Meaner, by Maureen Dowd, published in The New York Times (New York City, New York) of Sunday 20th October 1996:
There was a moment, in the San Diego debate, when Bob Dole actually looked as if he wanted to run and hide behind Jim Lehrer’s chair. All night, Bill Clinton had been playing alpha male, throwing gorilla dust at Mr. Dole, hoping to distract his opponent from attacking on character and ethics.
The earliest occurrences of gorilla dust that I have found seem to indicate that this expression was popularised—if not coined—by the U.S. businessman and politician Henry Ross Perot (1930-2019):
1-: From a report by Janet Braunstein, of Associated Press, published in several U.S. newspapers on Tuesday 9th December 1986—for example in The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, Iowa):
DETROIT—The more than 7,000 people who attended H. Ross Perot’s luncheon speech on Monday hoping to see sparks fly between he and General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger Smith instead got a Perot critique on the problems of American business.
The Economic Club of Detroit luncheon has been one of the hottest tickets in town since GM’s board of directors several weeks ago voted to buy out Perot, the company’s biggest shareholder and its loudest critic, for $750 million.
The strife between Perot and GM was caused by two issues, he [= Perot] said […].
Perot called other issues brought up by GM “gorilla dust,” referring to the way gorillas throw dust at their opponents to distract them during a fight, and denied that he had threatened to sue on the EDS contract problem.
2-: From the account by Edward Miller, of Gannett News Service, of the luncheon that took place on Monday 8th December 1986 at the Economic Club of Detroit, published in The Times (Shreveport, Louisiana) of Tuesday 9th December 1986:
[Perot] accused GM of using “gorilla dust” to obscure the arguments between EDS and GM. He explained that gorillas, when they’re about to fight, throw dirt in the air to distract one another.
3-: From Pension of disbelief at snub, by Jerome Cahill, News Washington Bureau, published in the Daily News (New York City, New York) of Thursday 18th December 1986:
Washington—General Motors chairman Roger B. Smith ducked a face-to-face meeting here yesterday with pension fund managers upset over GM’s controversial $700 million buyout of Texas computer whiz and arch-critic H. Ross Perot, raising the possibility of further legal actions to overturn the deal.
Perot, who sold his Electronic Data Systems Corp. to GM two years ago in return for a huge block of GM stock and a place on the board, denied charges by company officials that his ouster stemmed from his “flouting” of standard corporation procedures and his demand for “intolerable” freedom from GM oversight.
“That’s a joke,” the Texan declared. “The audit thing is a nonissue . . . gorilla dust.”
4-: From an interview of Henry Ross Perot by Newsweek’s Houston bureau chief Daniel Pedersen, published in The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina) of Sunday 21st December 1986:
Q. How do you respond to the charges that your pricing was exorbitant, that your people lacked expertise?
A. That’s gorilla dust. When gorillas fight, they throw dust in the air to distract one another. There are a lot of gorillas up there.
5-: From Haven’t Arizonans been down this Perot road twice before?, by Marianne Moody Jennings, published in the Arizona Republic (Phoenix, Arizona) of Sunday 28th June 1992—Perot had announced his intention to run for President of the USA:
[Perot] created new law when it came to acquisitions. Roger B. Smith, then the chairman of General Motors, stated that when GM asked to see EDS’s financial records for audit purposes, H. Ross said “hell, no” and “none of your damn business.” When Mr. Smith tried to just go in to EDS for the records, he said there were guards everywhere.
H. Ross denies the denial of access and says all the EDS hoopla was just “gorilla dust.” This is H. Ross’s phrase for the practice of gorillas that creates panic and confusion in their opponents when they throw dust during a fight.
[…] I’d love to sit on a porch with H. Ross Perot. I’d even like to work for the man. He strikes me as a no-nonsense guy. I’ve worked for the state for so long that a definitive signal from an employer would be a nice change. But I can’t handle gorilla dust in lieu of issues. I’m having enough trouble with banana peels.
In his column On Language, published in The New York Times (New York City, New York) of Sunday 5th December 1993, the U.S. author, columnist, journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire (William Lewis Safir – 1929-2009) noted that the expression had been misspelt guerrilla dust:
In his debate with Vice President Al Gore on Nafta, Ross Perot lashed out in this manner: “See, again, he throws up propaganda. He throws guerrilla dust. It makes no sense.”
That’s how the spoken words were transcribed by the Federal News Service, a private firm that supplies texts to news organizations. (It assures us it “is not affiliated with the Federal Government.” So why do they pick a confusing name?)
A guerrilla, from the diminutive of guerra, which is Spanish for “war” and comes from Germanic roots, is a member of an irregular military force. (A terrorist calls himself a guerrilla; a guerrilla calls himself a freedom fighter.) Although the word is often used as an attributive noun—modifying tactics and warfare—I had never heard it hit the dust.
Plugging a book on Conan O’Brien’s late-night talk show, I wondered aloud about Mr. Perot’s figure of speech; sure enough, an insomniac named Randall Ravitz of Livingston, N.J., supplied this zoological data: “When a gorilla (not guerrilla) feels threatened and is forced to assume a defensive posture, it will throw up dust or dirt in order to distract or blind its opponent.”
Thus, gorilla dust is what we used to call a smokescreen that has been inhaled with a giant sucking sound.
One thought on “‘gorilla dust’: meaning and origin”
“Gorilla dust” was used in the “Airport” episode of Newsradio, season 3, episode 17. Airdate 2/19/1997.