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Does Spanish paramilitar have a different meaning than English paramilitary, or at least stronger negative connotations? This question has recently become the focus of reaction to a New Yorker article by Jon Lee Anderson, "The increasingly tense standoff over Catalonia's independence referendum", 10/4/2017.

The first paragraph of Anderson's article (emphasis added):

Voting rights have been under siege in the U.S. in recent years, with charges of attempted electoral interference, legislation that seeks to make access to the polls more difficult, and gerrymandering, in a case that reached the Supreme Court this week. But no citizens here or in any democracy expect that they may be attacked by the police if they try to vote. Yet that is what happened on Sunday in the Spanish region of Catalonia, where thousands of members of the Guardia Civil paramilitary force, and riot police, were deployed by the central government in Madrid to prevent the Catalans from holding an “illegal” referendum on independence from Spain.

In El País, Antonio Muñoz Molina accused Anderson of lying ("En Francoland: En Europa o América, les gusta tanto el pintoresquismo de nuestro atraso que se ofenden si les explicamos todo lo que hemos cambiado"):

Pocas cosas pueden dar más felicidad a un corresponsal extranjero en España que la oportunidad de confirmar con casi cualquier pretexto nuestro exotismo y nuestra barbarie. Hasta el reputado Jon Lee Anderson, que vive o ha vivido entre nosotros, miente a conciencia, sin ningún escrúpulo, sabiendo que miente, con perfecta deliberación, sabiendo cuál será el efecto de su mentira, cuando escribe en The New Yorker que la Guardia Civil es un cuerpo “paramilitar”.

("In Francoland: Both Europe and the US love what they see as Spain’s quaint backwardness so much that they feel insulted when we explain to them how much we have changed"):

Few things make a foreign correspondent in Spain happier than the opportunity to corroborate our exoticism and our brutality. Even the renowned Jon Lee Anderson, who lives or has lived among us, is deliberately lying, with no qualms he is aware that he is lying and aware of the effect his lies will have, when he writes in The New Yorker that the Civil Guard is a “paramilitary” force. [translation from the El País web site]

This has resulted in an energetic discussion on Twitter (Twitzkrieg?), in which Anderson's position is that many English-language sources call the Guardia Civil "a paramilitary police force" or something similar, e.g.

and that Antonio Muñoz Molina is using a meaning difference between English and Spanish in a disingenuous way, e.g.

Before looking into it, my understanding of the English word paramilitary aligned with Anderson's, namely that it means "organized along military lines", whether in reference to governmental organizations that are not part of the military, or to civilian militia-like entities. It's easy to find examples in English where paramilitary is applied to non-military governmental organizations, e.g. these examples from Google Books:

Correctional officers (C.O.s) were organized in accordance with a rigid paramilitary chain of command.

There is an obvious need to change the bureaucratic paramilitary structure of police organizations, so prevalent in the majority of police organizations around the world.

But on looking into it, I found that things are more complex. I was surprised to find that the OED's only relevant gloss would specifically NOT apply to a police organization like Spain's Guardia Civil:

Designating, of, or relating to a force or unit whose function and organization are analogous or ancillary to those of a professional military force, but which is not regarded as having professional or legitimate status.

The OED's earliest citation is from 1935, but seems to originate in the 1934 "Reply of the United Kingdom Government" at a League of Nations "Conference for the Reduction and Limitation of Armaments". The OED citation is the first sentence of the following:

A difficult problem has been raised in regard to the so-called " paramilitary training" — i.e., the military training outside the army of men of military age. His Majesty's Government suggested that such training outside the army should be prohibited, this prohibition being checked by a system of permanent and automatic supervision, in which the supervising organisation should be guided less by a strict definition of the term " military training" than by the military knowledge and experience of its experts. They are particularly glad to be informed that the German Government have freely promised to provide proof, through the medium of control, that the S.A. and the S.S. are not of a military character, and have added that similar proof will be furnished in respect of the Labour Corps. It is essential to a settlement that any doubts and suspicions in regard to these matters should be set and kept
at rest.

The earliest use of the term in the New York Times is in a report about the same discussions —

"Simon to the Commons", 4/9/1935: (Following is the text of the account given to the House of Commons today by Foreign Secretary Sir John Simon of conversations recently held by him and Anthony Eden, Lord Privy Seal, with leading officials in Berlin, Moscow, Prague and Warsaw)

Regarding land armaments, Herr Hitler stated that Germany required thirty-six divisions, representing a maximum of 550,000 soldiers of all arms, including a division of Schutzstaffel and militarized police troops. He asserted that there were no paramilitary formations in Germany.

The next example has the same negative connotations and the same association with fascist groups — "France suspects Klan counterpart", NYT 11/17/1937:

The question or whether a French counterpart to the Ku Klux Klan really exists was again raised today through the arrest of a wealthy Lille contractor, Rene Anceaux, M. Vosselm, one of his employes, and Gerard de ia Motte-Saint Pierre on charges which remain unspecified, but are in the case of M. Anceaux plotting against the security of the State and for the others possessing weapons of war and "association with wrongdoers." […]

M. Anceaux served as an officer during the World War and was wounded. He was the president of the Lille branch of the dissolved Rightist "Paramilitary League."

The 1939 New Jersey statutes contain a law using the term in a similar way:

Any 2 or more persons who assemble as a paramilitary organization for the purpose of practicing with weapons are disorderly persons.


As used in this act, “paramilitary organization” means an organization which is not an agency of the United States Government or of the State of New Jersey, or which is not a private school […]

So in English as well as in Spanish (and French and presumably other languages), the term paramilitary and its cognates seem to have originated in the 1930s in reference to fascist groups "whose function and organization are analogous or ancillary to those of a professional military force, but which [are] not regarded as having professional or legitimate status", as the OED put it.

At some point, the "not regarded as having professional or legitimate status" clause seems to have faded away — though perhaps without being totally lost, since the term continues to be used to refer to non-governmental as well as governmental but non-military organizations. Thus "Charlottesville Joins Suit Against Paramilitary Groups Connected to August 12", NBC News 10/12/2017:

Charlottesville is joining a suit to prevent what it calls unauthorized paramilitary groups from returning to the city.

Georgetown Law Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection filed a complain Thursday, October 12, asking Charlottesville Circuit Court to, "prohibit key Unite the Right organizers and an array of participating private paramilitary groups and their commanders from coming back to Virginia to conduct illegal paramilitary activity."

And my impression is that when someone uses the word "paramilitary" in connection with police forces, their attitude is often a critical one. Thus "Paramilitary police: Cops or soldiers?", The Economist 3/20/2014, begins with the subhed "America's police have become too militarised", and notes that

Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams (ie, paramilitary police units) were first formed to deal with violent civil unrest and life-threatening situations: shoot-outs, rescuing hostages, serving high-risk warrants and entering barricaded buildings, for instance. Their mission has crept. […]

Kara Dansky of the American Civil Liberties Union, who is overseeing a study into police militarisation, notices a more martial tone in recent years in the materials used to recruit and train new police officers. A recruiting video in Newport Beach, California, for instance, shows officers loading assault rifles, firing weapons, chasing suspects, putting people in headlocks and releasing snarling dogs.

This is no doubt sexier than showing them poring over paperwork or attending a neighbourhood-watch meeting. But does it attract the right sort of recruit, or foster the right attitude among serving officers? Mr Balko cites the T-shirts that some off-duty cops wear as evidence of a culture that celebrates violence (“We get up early to beat the crowds”; “You huff and you puff and we’ll blow your door down”).

Anyhow, there can be little question that Spain's Guardia Civil is a "paramilitary police force" in the current English-language sense of the word.

And it's not clear to me that the current Spanish usage is actually different. Thus the Real Academia's Diccionario de la lengua española defines paramilitar as

1. adj. Dicho de una organización civil: Dotada de estructura o disciplina de tipo militar.

without any stipulation of illegitimacy. And since the same dictionary defines civil in the relevant sense as "Que no es militar ni eclesiástico o religioso", and since the Guardia Civil is self-defined as "civil", it seems that paramilitar ought to apply to that organization without any untruthful intent or effect.

[h/t David Lobina]




  1. Anna Nicholson said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    I can’t comment on Spanish ‘paramilitar’, except to say that the recent actions of the Guardia Civil against Catalan civilians certainly seemed illegitimate in my eyes.

    As a BrE speaker, the word ‘paramilitary’ has definite connotations of illegitimacy for me, perhaps because what immediately springs to my mind (being of a certain age) is the way that the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland were frequently described by the BBC and others as a ‘paramilitary organisation’.

  2. Mike M said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 8:44 am

    Native speaker of Canadian English, 30 – to me paramilitary implies an organisation that does not military things but its not officially sanctioned by the state, and is generally used quite pejoratively; more like a 'militia' than anything else. I would not have thought of the 'organised along military lines' definition, and would generally use gendarmerie as a generic term for that.

  3. Birdseeding said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 9:08 am

    I'm not a native speaker, but I've also primarily heard it with a negative connotation of "illegitimate semi-military force". It conjures up images of groups like Arkan's Tigers during the war in Yugoslavia, anti-trade union paramilitaries in Colombia, and the parties in the Northern Ireland conflict.

  4. chips mackinolty said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 9:14 am

    Interesting that citations above use, at some point or other, the notion of "gendarmerie", that is, a police force organised on military lines. Similar, in so many ways, to the carabinieri in Italy, formally known as the Arma dei Carabinieri, and under the monarchy as the Corpo dei Carabinieri Reali. Like it or not, they represent different concepts of policing. At, say, a demonstration in Italy there will be representatives of of local and state police, as well as the carabinieri. Meanwhile, the Italian army have a regular "safe streets" presence as well.

  5. Jonathan said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 9:28 am

    The Hansard debates archive (1803-2005) shows the first usage of 'para-military' in the UK Parliament to have been in February 1934, just a month before your earliest known citation, when it seems to have been felt by Sir John Simon to require brief explanation. Its original usage was clearly that of a body with some official or quasi-official standing; and it would be hard to have suggested then that the Spanish Civil Guard was not a paramilitary body. I suspect that it rather morphed away from that in Britain/Ireland in the 1990s because of Northern Irish usage and only then acquired a rather pejorative sense as described by a couple of the commentators above.

  6. Jonathan said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 9:29 am

    Should have noted, the earliest usage in Hansard is at .

  7. Yet Another John said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:04 am

    In current speech in Colombia, if you call somebody a "paramilitar" any local would immediately assume that you could only mean a member of one of the right-wing, anti-FARC organizations such as the notorious AUC or one of its successor organizations (since the AUC nominally disbanded about a decade ago).

    Among irregular armed groups in Colombia, the basic dichotomy is between "guerilleros" and "paramilitares," where the former are left-wing Marxist-Leninist organizations (like the FARC or the ELN) and the latter always denote right-wing organizations espousing anti-Communist and/or nationalist ideologies.

    My impression (though I don't have the personal contacts to be sure) is that virtually nobody in Colombia would willingly call themselves a "paramilitar" due to the derogatory implications of that word, whereas (this I know) one could proudly call oneself a "guerrillero." And if you followed the literal definition of the RAE and called ex-members of the FARC "paramilitares," any Colombian would find that super confusing, kind of like like saying, "Obama is a Republican — you know, in the 19th-century sense of the word."

  8. Sven said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:13 am

    As a native german speaker, I do associate the word "paramilitärisch" with fascist organisations; if I try to generalise, it would still be with a negative connotation as something that is organised like an army, but definitely shouldn't be.

  9. RP said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:22 am

    I'd understand the noun "paramilitary" to refer to an illegal paramilitary organisation. But I'd understand the adjective "paramilitary" to refer equally well to legal police forces that are organised on military lines.

    The definitions at don't make this distinction – but the examples do. All the examples for the nouns are negative, while the examples for the adjective divide between negative and neutral.

  10. Martin S said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:33 am

    For me (British-English speaker), if you’d asked me yesterday, I would have assumed that the term ‘paramilitary’ generally referred to terrorist groups with military structures, operating outside democratic jurisdiction. The most prominent use of the word ‘paramilitary’ on the news would be in reference to the IRA and the loyalist paramilitaries; I can’t recall having heard it in the sense of auxiliary co-optable forces before. The UK lacks any equivalent of a national guard or state militias, as far as I know (we have the Territorial Army/Army Reserves, but they’re seen as explicitly military, not para-military).

    The use of the term ‘paramilitary’ to describe the Civil Guard would have struck me as potentially inflammatory, given that until now I wasn’t aware of any other definitions of ‘paramilitary’ in circulation. It would have seemed to be equating the Catalonian independence dispute with the (notionally-similar and geographically-proximate) question of sovereignty in Northern Ireland. In the specific quoted context, it would arguably seem equivalent to the UK government openly conspiring with loyalist paramilitaries/terrorist organisations (eg the UVF) against a civilian population.

    You can see this confusion playing out dramatically on the talk page for Wikipedia’s “paramilitary” article, where people are saying things like “While terrorist groups are paramilitary, paramilitary is not necessarily terrorist, so therefore this is inaccurate”, or “if we used the terms "paramilitary policing", people in the UK would think about a man in a balacalva who goes and shoots people's knee caps out for selling drugs” – although there are also plenty of people who are arguing that terrorists can never be ‘paramilitary’, and to use the word in that sense would be to Contradict the Dictionary, even if the BBC and UK government consistently use the term in that sense (“While the BBC is occasionally useful as a source of information, let's not make them the arbiters of what the word means”!). It’s tempting to assume that it’s just a UK/USA difference, but it’s always more complicated than that…

  11. Linda said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:39 am

    Possibly it's because the UK doesn't have an equivalent of the National Guard that paramilitary has become attached to organised terrorist groups. While paramedic still has positive connotations because of ambulance staff, nurses and St John's.

  12. jfruh said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:45 am

    Just chiming in as a native American English speaker to say that "paramilitary" definitely strikes me as a pejorative. That may be because the Anglosphere politically seems to have a strong bias against the use of military-discipline forces to maintain internal law and order (though it seems like there's been a creep in that direction in US local police forces over the past decade). In that case, the problem may be as much as the fact that many English speakers have an inherent distrust of institutions like the Guardia Civil as much as the word itself.

    On the other hand, there probably is a definite color of bias added by the fact that English uses the same word to describe, say, the UVF or Latin American death squads as it does to describe long-standing institutions of reasonable functional democracies like Spain, France, or Italy.

  13. Ethan said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:51 am

    Native (US) speaker here. For me "paramilitary" has always implied "not a state-sanctioned body". Calling the US National Guard a paramilitary force would sound very odd indeed. If applied to a local police force, I would take it to imply that it had gone rogue, operating outside the officially sanctioned scope of action.

  14. RP said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 10:53 am

    "English uses the same word to describe, say, the UVF or Latin American death squads as it does to describe long-standing institutions of reasonable functional democracies like Spain, France, or Italy."

    Yes, although Spain isn't all that long-standing a democracy, and although the Guardia Civil is a long-standing institution, it was for many decades the enforcement agency of a dictatorship. And then after the restoration of democracy it gained a reputation as one of the more backward-looking institutions. Guardia Civil officers organised the 1981 coup attempt.

  15. Florence Artur said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 11:22 am

    French speaker here, and my take on "paramilitaire" would be similar to Sven's. I would certainly not call the gendarmerie that.

  16. stephenl said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 11:33 am

    As someone who grew up in Ireland, paramilitary only ever meant "violent terrorist group that has some slight military structure". The idea that there's a non-pejorative use is a surprise. I blame the IRA.

  17. Juan San Luis said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

    Native Spanish speaker from Spain here.

    My English (I learned it in the Republic of Ireland) is not all that good, but up until now I would have thought “paramilitary” not to be a neutral term except, may be, in very specific circunstances.

    Regarding Spanish “paramilitar”, pretty much the same.

    Also, the Spanish wikipedia page for Guardia Civil (last modified 6 days ago) doesn’t use the word “paramilitar” at all, although it stresses its “naturaleza militar” (“military nature”?).

  18. Nick Z said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:20 pm

    I second the intuitions of Anna Nicholson and others that 'paramilitary' is more or less a synonym of 'armed and organised terrorist group': I am a British English speaker who grew up during the period of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. I would not describe an organ of a state as 'paramilitary' – except perhaps in cases where states maintain this sort of group 'on the side' as a way of suppressing their own populations (which seems to leave the status of the Guardia Civil up in the air).

  19. Paul said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:42 pm

    As someone who grew up in Ireland in the 1980s, "paramilitary" was the usual way, especially in the media, of referring to non-state armed groups in Northern Ireland – the kind of groups their more hardline opponents would often refer to as "terrorist". But even though it was a more neutral term than the obviously judgemental "terrorist," I don't think those it referred to would normally have used it.

  20. BZ said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

    I always thought the para- prefix meant similar to but not part of, like paramedics do medical things, but are not doctors. I never thought that "paramilitary" must be negative, just a military-style organization that's not part of the actual military. In the US that might mean police or military contractors, though come to think of it, I wouldn't actually call any US organization "paramilitary"

  21. Quim said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:50 pm

    In Spain, "paramilitar" certainly means "not a state-sanctioned body" and most often an illegal organization. The Guardia Civil is described as "militar," for instance in the Spanish Wikipedia "es un instituto armado español de naturaleza militar, dependiente del Ministerio del Interior y del de Defensa".
    But how should we translate this into English? It was my impression that "military police" means something else. Does "militarized police" work?

  22. Not a naive speaker said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 12:56 pm

    From the horses mouth:


    De para- y militar2.

    1. adj. Dicho de una organización civil: Dotada de estructura o disciplina de tipo militar.

    2. adj. Dicho de una persona: Afiliada a una organización paramilitar. U. t. c. s.

    3. adj. Perteneciente o relativo a las organizaciones paramilitares. Actividad paramilitar.

  23. Quim said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 1:40 pm

    In the drae definition, "civil" means "civil_3: Que no es militar ni eclesiástico o religioso." So, it is not military, but it has a military structure.
    But in "Guardia Civil" it must be "civil_1: ciudadano (perteneciente a la ciudad o a los ciudadanos)" because the Guardia Civil is "militar".

  24. Linda said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 1:41 pm


    In the UK, military police are the soldiers who maintain internal military discipline.

    Militarized police doesn't have the right feel . In the absence of better ideas I could see "gendarmes" being used.

  25. Quim said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 2:52 pm

    Actually, "policía militar" in Spanish also means what you say. Would "military police corps" work?

  26. Jenz said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 2:58 pm

    American English speaker here, and I would definitely associate the term paramilitary only with military actors that do not have official state supervision. Like Linda mentions above, the Guardia Civil sounds like a gendarmerie to me. Like Yet Another John mentions, I also only use the term to describe right-wing groups in everyday conversation, although when writing something technical I might use it to describe some leftist groups.

    To give an more concrete example, Turkey has a militarised police force that is called the Jandarma, modelled after its French namesake. Alongside the army, the Jandarma fights the the left-wing PKK, which is a paramilitary organisation but to whichthe term is rarely applied to because of its ostensibly Marxist ideology. Instead, they are usually referred to as 'rebels'. As a part of the struggle against the PKK, the Turkish army and gendarmerie have provided guns and training to Kurdish clans and villages that are hostile to the PKK. These 'village guard' units, because of their anti-PKK sympathies, are usually described as paramilitary.

  27. tsts said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 3:38 pm

    RP is right, IMO. Paramilitary as a noon would usually be non-official, while "paramilitary police" refers to, well, the various forms of half-police-half military that many countries have (the police part making it official).

    As for Mark's `at some point, the "not regarded as having professional or legitimate status" clause seems to have faded away', I see no support for that claim. The term paramilitary is in wide use in reporting on conflict zones, and it rarely refers to official forces in that context.

  28. Peter Taylor said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 5:05 pm

    If it hadn't been for the introductory paragraph I would have guessed that the point of interest of the quoted text was the howlingly bad choice of sentence structure in

    …thousands of members of the Guardia Civil paramilitary force, and riot police, were deployed by the central government in Madrid

    There is a parse which makes that correct, but the most obvious parse is oh so misleading.

    On the main subject, I was doubly surprised to see the Guardia Civil described as a paramilitary force: firstly because, like many people who have commented, the word has strong connotations of terrorism to me; and secondly because in the 10 years that I have lived in Spain I have often heard it referred to as a military body but never as a paramilitary one, although I've never fully understood its relationship with the Army.

    A quick newspaper search digs up e.g. from 1980:

    El ministro de Defensa, Agustín Rodríguez Sahagún, afirmó ayer ante el Pleno del Congreso que, según el criterio del Gobierno, la Guardia Civil es un cuerpo militar adscrito al Ejército de Tierra

    , or a 1982 article about the possibility of doing your compulsory military service in the Guardia Civil.

    Particularly relevant to this discussion, since it was printed in El País a few days before Anderson's article: La Guardia Civil no es un cuerpo paramilitar, aunque la prensa extranjera lo diga (The Guardia Civil is not a paramilitary body, whatever the foreign press may say), which cites the same examples cited here in comments of extralegal Northern Irish and Colombian groups.

    I'm not sure exactly how to describe it in English, though. The problem with "military police" isn't exactly that mentioned by Quim and Linda: it's that there's overlap. The Guardia Civil are legally permitted to function as military police (and in various other military functions under the direct command of the Ministry of Defence), but there's a separate body in the Army which is dedicated solely to that function, and it's not the primary function of the Guardia Civil. Civilians in Spain are most likely to interact with them in their rôle as rural traffic police.

  29. DaveK said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 5:17 pm

    I'm a native speaker of American English and always thought of "paramilitary" as a neutral term for either public groups like the local police or unofficial groups. The adjective "military-style" is used more for the private groups that try to dignify themselves as "militias".

  30. ShadZ said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 6:05 pm

    Is the Salvation Army paramilitary because of their internal structure, despite the fact that they have no guns (nor want any)?

    [(myl) Opinions differ. Wikipedia tells us that "A Moscow court ruled that the Salvation Army was a paramilitary organisation subject to expulsion. In October 2006, the European Court of Human Rights ruled the decision illegal."]

  31. Pablo said,

    October 16, 2017 @ 6:40 pm

    Spanish native from Spain here.

    I'm pretty sure that we, like Antonio Muñoz Molina, understand paramilitar as a not official army. We use the term quite often to talk about American paramilitar organizations full of gun nuts.

    What strikes me here is the definition proposed by the academy. Sometimes they are wrong too, and in this case I'd go with the Wikipedia article for paramilitar

    "Paramilitar o paramilitarismo se refiere a organizaciones particulares que tienen una estructura, entrenamiento, subcultura y (a menudo) una función igual a las de un ejército, pero que no forman parte de manera formal a las fuerzas militares de un Estado. Las organizaciones paramilitares, sirven a los intereses del Estado, o grupos de poder en el enquistados, y generalmente están fuera de la ley"

    There you can see it trice, like an army but not in the formal body of the state, put of the law, and later they are compared to mercenaries.
    Regarding the right wing connotations, it doesn't apply in Spain

  32. John Swindle said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 1:42 am

    Anderson wrote in English in an American publication. It's unfair to criticize him for using a word in English because it has an unsavory Spanish cognate. He may not have realized, however – certainly I didn't realize – that so many English speakers only knew the pejorative sense of the word. I mean, to me "military" is pretty bad, but "paramilitary" isn't necessarily worse.

    @Mike M: Interesting! I haven't heard "gendarmerie" as a generic term in the USA. For us it's a slightly foreign word for a specifically French institution.

    @DaveK: "Militia" gets a positive reference in the US Constitution. I gather that the colonial militias became the National Guard or the wackos or both.

  33. John Walden said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 1:55 am

    The Guardia Civil live in barracks, they have generals, colonels, and captains. When there was military service it could be done in the Guardia Civil.

    They're not what could be called civilians, despite the name. Obviously a parallel is the French Gendarmes, who are with them in the FIEP, an

    ' Association of European and Mediterranean gendarmeries and police forces with military status'

    along with Italian carabinieri and others.

  34. George said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 2:57 am

    As MikeM pointed out, it is possible to use the word 'gendarmerie' in English to describe forces like the Guardia Civil. The reality, however, is not only that many English speakers think of 'gendarmerie' as "a slightly foreign word for a specifically French institution" (John Swindle above); it's not at all uncommon to see 'gendarme' used in English as if it were the French word for 'policeman'. I've often come across references to tourists in Paris asking a 'gendarme' for directions (when it would require pretty exceptional circumstances for the Gendarmerie Nationale to have personnel on duty in Paris and they certainly wouldn't be there to give directions to tourists). Until 2009, the Gendarmerie was actually under the authority of the Minister of Defence and, even if the institution is now placed under the authority of the Minister of the Interior, gendarmes still have military (not paramilitary) status, so it could be argued that the Gendarmerie is not so much a police force organised along military lines as a military force that carries out policing functions.

    On the connotations of 'paramilitary' itself, I'll just add my Irish voice to those who associate it primarily with non-state actors (such as the IRA).

  35. boynamedsue said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 3:29 am


    I think the question here is usage. In formal English both usages are possible ("organised on military lines" and "non-state military force") and I suspect the same is true in Spanish. However, the first definition, which is the one given in the DRAE is falling out of use, due to the negative connotations of the second.

  36. boynamedsue said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 3:38 am

    BTW there are several references to the GC as a "paramilitary force" on the website of… El Pais in English!

  37. Andrew said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 5:14 am

    The first thing that comes to my mind in association with the word "paramilitary" is the Branch Davidians. Make of that what you will.

  38. Alex Reid said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 6:23 am

    As a British English speaker, I'd certainly associate 'paramilitary' with a terrorist organisation. Perhaps the same is true in Iberian Spanish, too. Here's the definition for 'paramilitar' in the Gran Diccionario Oxford:

    adjetivo/nombre común
    1 [asociación, persona] Que copia la organización y distintivos de cuerpos militares y es de ideología reaccionaria: asociaciones secretas paramilitares.
    2 adjetivo
    Que es propio o característico de esas asociaciones o personas: recibió una educación paramilitar.

    Which requires a 'reactionary ideology' as well as a military organisational structure.

  39. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 8:37 am

    It seems obvious that "paramilitar(y)" has two distinct meanings, in both English and Spanish, and that Muñoz Molina was being disingenuous in his huffy attack on Anderson.
    That being said, I think that "militarized police" is a better description in English of such forces as the gendarmerie (in France, Belgium and Switzerland), the Carabinieri or the Guardia Civil. I don't think it matters much whether the defense ministry or the interior ministry is in charge. Or, for that matter, the governors of the states as in the case of the polícia militar of Brazil.

  40. Joyce Melton said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 8:49 am

    Paramilitary as an adjective to me is simply an organizational description. In that sense, all organizations with ranks and uniforms have a paramilitary flavor. The Girl Scouts included.

    But paramilitary as a noun is different. This is speaking to purpose, not organizational principle. A paramilitary is an organization or grouping that attempts to fulfill the purpose of a military, whether it has ranks and uniforms or not.

  41. George said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 9:15 am

    @Cory Lubliner

    As what we're talking about here is really connotation, my issue with the term 'militarised police' would be that what it connotes is likely to have less to do with organisational structure than with matters such as how such a force interacts with the public, how 'fearsome' it is or how it is equipped and armed. If I get pulled over by the gendarmerie while driving on a rural road in France because they want to check my insurance, the experience from my perspective won't be fundamentally any different to what it would have been had I been pulled over by the police for the same reason inside the city limits. They'll be dressed in blue (not green), they'll have sidearms like the police (not assault weapons) and their vehicle will look like a pretty standard estate car (not some 5-ton armoured thing).

  42. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 9:23 am

    It should, I think, be obvious that Ulster-specific usages of "paramilitary" during The Troubles et seq have influenced BrEng usage much more than AmEng and that The New Yorker is edited (with some house idiosyncrasies) for an AmEng readership. I guess my problem is that to my AmEng ear virtually any police force is "paramilitary" in the broad non-pejorative adjectival sense, especially when you note the contrast in a generic U.S. local police dep't between the sworn officers, with weapons, uniforms, and ranks in an ordered hierarchy, and the "civilian" support staff employees who may work under the same roof. So "paramilitary" seems a bit redundant and thus not the best way of referring to the sort of more-militaristic-than-generic-police entity like the Guardia Civil and parallel entities in France, Italy, etc. Of course, the lack of that sort of entity in most Anglophone countries (because the linguistic difference coincides with different notions of appropriate political ordering and individual liberty etc) makes it unsurprising we do not have a standard generic non-specialist way of talking about such entities.

  43. George said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 9:23 am

    Similarly, if I find myself face to face with some guy in body armour pointing a rubber bullet gun in my general direction, I'm far from sure that the matter of whether he's a gendarme mobile or a member of the CRS (part of the police) will have much impact on the degree to which I consider him to be 'militarised'.

  44. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 9:34 am

    FWIW, Anderson himself is American in the sense of having American parents and I assume a U.S. passport but grew up in various locales all over the world (because his father was a diplomat who kept getting sent to different posts by the U.S. gov't), has lived all sorts of places as an adult, and (if you trust the internet) currently resides in England. So the extent to which his own idiolect would reflect AmEng v. BrEng v who-knows-what influences is hard to predict.

  45. James Wimberley said,

    October 17, 2017 @ 7:27 pm

    Re gendarmes: Tsarist Russia had a Corps of Gendarmes too, a national security police force with military ranks, uniforms and discipline. I support the suggestion to characterise the Guardia Civil as a gendarmerie.

  46. Scott P. said,

    October 19, 2017 @ 5:47 pm

    "That being said, I think that "militarized police" is a better description in English of such forces as the gendarmerie (in France, Belgium and Switzerland), the Carabinieri or the Guardia Civil. I don't think it matters much whether the defense ministry or the interior ministry is in charge."

    But 'militarized police' suggests you started with a police force, that 'became' militarized, suggesting a recent development.

    When I want to describe the Guardia Civil, I simply call them the 'national police'. That indicates their function and competency.

  47. John Walden said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 1:34 am

    Unfortunately there is also the Policía Nacional, with its own uniform and so on.

  48. John Swindle said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 3:18 am

    Made me wonder whether the Canadian RCMP or the Mexican Federal Police were these gendarmes or militarish police or whatever we're calling them. The RCMP, yes, officially a gendarmerie, at least in French. The Mexican Federales, I don't know. I'm guessing not.

  49. John Swindle said,

    October 20, 2017 @ 3:34 am

    Oh. Current English-language Wikipedia articles on "Federal Police (Mexico)" and "Gendarmerie" are helpful. The latter talks a little about the word "paramilitary" and the question of whether gendarmes are under Interior or Defense ministers (either, it seems).

    The Federal Police in Mexico? Can be considered a gendarmerie, although two of its seven divisions are more particularly militarized and one is specifically labeled a gendarmerie.

    The RCMP/GRC? A gendarmerie more by name and tradition than by current function.

  50. Bathrobe said,

    October 24, 2017 @ 8:29 am

    From the Guardian Deathbed confession may crack case of the 'Crazy Brabant Killers'

    "The killers’ proficiency in handling weapons raised suspicions at the time that there was a link with the gendarmerie, a former paramilitary police force of Belgium."

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