Colonial war

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Emanuel Leutze: Storming of the Teocalli by Cortez and His Troops , 1848

Colonial war is a collective term for the warfare of the colonial powers from the 16th century and the securing of their conquered colonial territories up to the second half of the 20th century. The colonial wars ended in 1974 with the end of the Portuguese colonial war due to the Carnation Revolution . The military experience gained in them is processed in military theory, especially in the Anglo-American armed forces in the context of the so-called new or asymmetrical wars up to the present day; especially the French doctrine conceived during the Algerian war . Mainly in Italy , the colonial wars also served to divert attention from domestic political conflicts.


The Duden currently (2015) defines colonial war as "... war waged to acquire or secure colonies".

In the Handbook of Modern Defense Sciences from 1936, published on behalf of the German Society for Defense Policy and Defense Sciences , the term was defined by the major of the Wehrmacht, Ludwig Freiherr Rüdt von Collenberg, as follows:

“During the colonial wars. it is about wars in overseas countries, which are geographically quite remote from the home territory of the col (olonial) .- power and (nd). who had different living and fighting conditions than Europe. Experience on European. Theaters of war can therefore not easily be used. It can be about the subjugation of foreign peoples or the suppression of uprisings in areas already occupied or punitive expeditions against natives whose lands are not to be permanently taken. Liberation struggles of white colonists against their mother country or struggles of great powers among one another can also come into consideration, which lead to a wrestling of forces in the protected areas. Colonial u (nd). Sea warfare close together. "

- Freiherr Rüdt von Collenberg: Colonial Wars. In: Generalmajor ret. Hermann Franke (Hrsg.): Handbook of the modern military sciences . Volume 1: Defense Policy and Warfare. Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / Leipzig 1936, p. 138.

Colonial wars from the beginning of the 16th to the end of the 18th century

The colonial wars of this era served to conquer and consolidate the following European empires :

The best known, due to the context of the discovery of America , are the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru under the conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro . The conquerors met with the Aztec and Inca empires on empires, which gave the Spaniards the opportunity to exploit the differences between the imperial central and tributary peoples of the periphery, such as the Tlaxcalteks, and to win the latter as allies.

Frederic Remington: Coronado sets out to the north

However, the Spaniards limited their rule to economically valuable or strategically important regions. Territories that are geographically difficult to access and / or were populated by a warlike population such as B. the Miskito coast in today's Nicaragua remained deliberately outside the Spanish sphere of rule, since conquering and securing it would have been too costly (see also Arauco War , Guaraní War ).

Internal European conflicts like that

also had an impact on the overseas colonial territories (see also French and Indian Wars from 1689 to 1763), be it through mutual appropriation of colonial territories or the inclusion of the indigenous population e.g. B. as auxiliary troops of the colonial powers.

The American War of Independence is considered a colonial war, although the indigenous population was not politically involved. This also applies to the greatest possible extent to the South American wars of independence , which were usually waged by Creoles and mestizos .

In both North , Central and South America , internal colonization was by no means complete after independence. In the USA it caused the continuation of the Indian wars of the colonial times, while in Central America there were indigenous uprisings such as the caste war in Mexico or the Cañada uprising in Nicaragua in 1881. Large parts of Argentina were only conquered decades after independence in the so-called desert campaign .

19th century. Wars of independence in Latin America, opium wars in China and the race for Africa

The end of the Napoleonic Wars led to a new surge of European colonization overseas. In addition, the steamship enabled an almost explosive expansion of world trade.

The result was a European-North American expansion in Asia , such as the British in Burma , France in Indochina , the USA in Japan and practically all major European powers including Russia and Japan in China . The American expansion to the west found a counterpart in the 19th century in Russia's expansion to the south and east into the Caucasus and Central Asia . In the race for Africa around 1900 this expansion process was largely completed. With the exception of Liberia and Ethiopia , there were hardly any territories in Africa that were not directly or indirectly dominated by Europe. Examples:

Aleksey Danilovich Kivshenko: Imam Shamil surrendered to Count Baryatinsky on August 25, 1859 , 1880
Ashanti battle on July 11, 1824
Johannes Hermanus Barend Koekkoek: Boxer

Isolated attempts by Spain, alone or with French help, to regain control of former Latin American colonies in the shadow of the American Civil War , failed at the beginning of the mid-1860s in the Spanish-South American War of 1864–1866. Only in the Dominican Republic was it possible to reestablish Spanish rule at short notice from 1861–1865 with the help of local elites, with the logistical support of the Spanish colony of Cuba .

As a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898, the Spanish colonial empire dissolved de facto except for smaller possessions in Africa; the Philippines and Cuba became US-dependent protectorates ; Puerto Rico was placed under direct US administration, the German Empire acquired the former Spanish Mariana Islands in the Pacific.

France conquered large parts of North and West Africa in the course of the 19th century, and from 1858 it occupied the rear of India. The results of French expansion were secured in the Sino-French War from 1884 to 1885.

From the 1910s onwards, Japan operated its own colonial policy in Korea ( Korea under Japanese rule ).

1900 to 1939. Banana Wars and Air War

During this period there were hardly any colonial wars, as the military conquest of Africa and Asia was largely over. Exceptions in the German colonial empire were the Herero and Nama uprisings and the Maji-Maji uprising .

Bleriot XI-2 SIT BL246 (6384464567)

After the Italo-Turkish War of 1911/12 Italy occupied large parts of what is now Libya and the Dodecanese ; In this conflict, air forces were used for the first time for reconnaissance and the dropping of simple bombs .

In the US banana wars , in which the United States Marine Corps practically assumed the function of a "colonial constabulary" , massive air forces were deployed from 1915, for example in the Battle of Ocotal in Nicaragua on July 16, 1927 against the troops of the rebellious General Augusto César Sandino .

In addition to constant uprisings against British rule on the so-called north - western border of India , the epoch between the world wars was characterized by six major uprisings or colonial wars:

The Arab Revolt of 1916 was in the context of the First World War .

The rapid technical development during the First World War also had an impact on securing old and conquering new colonial areas. Main battle tanks and combat aircraft made it possible to control large and previously impassable areas with little personnel expenditure.

The air war theories of the Italian general Giulio Douhet were also reflected in the British concept of Imperial Policing , which had been developed by Charles William Gwynn and which received the status of an official military doctrine in the Empire.

1945 to 1974. Wars of decolonization

December 19, 1945. Royal Air Force Regiment armored cars patrol Batavia after a period of fighting between Indonesian nationalists and the colonial authorities

The end of the Second World War and the defeat of Japan led directly to militarily organized surveys of liberation movements in Indochina , the Dutch East Indies and Malaya with the aim of making these colonial areas independent.

In the East Indies, the Netherlands tried in vain to disguise the military insurrection movement as a domestic political issue with the term “Polizeiaktionen” (“ Politionele acties ”), which was not accepted by the United Nations . The insurgents were often logistically supported by the USSR and, from 1949, by the People's Republic of China , but also politically by the USA, which consciously called for decolonization during the Cold War .

The wars of decolonization sometimes led to sharp internal political disputes within the colonial powers, particularly in France and Portugal. Both opponents and proponents of decolonization harked to terrorist methods like the French OAS or the kidnappers of the Portuguese passenger ship Santa Maria in 1961 under the command of Captain of the reserve Henrique Galvão .

The battle for Điện Biên Phủ in Indochina in 1954, which shortly thereafter was popularly characterized as the “ Stalingrad of the white man”, was seen as a symbol of the military defeat of the European colonial powers . Examples:

The longest and most complex war of decolonization, considering the size of the country, was waged from 1961 to 1974 on three African fronts. The Portuguese colonial war was ended by young officers, usually with the rank of officer, in a left-wing military coup ( Carnation Revolution ). Even the conservative General António de Spínola , who is still considered one of the most successful Western counterinsurgency strategists, had publicly called for an end to the war years earlier.

Charles Edwin Fripp: Zulu regiment in attack formation at Isandlwana
Frederic Remington: A Map in the Sand , Cincinnati Art Museum

Character of warfare

The goal of colonial warfare was usually the military conquest of a territory and the submission, rather than the expulsion or displacement, of the indigenous population. Ideal for this are z. B. the Spanish conquest of Mexico and Peru . Portugal, on the other hand, was mainly interested in the establishment of trade and military bases by sea to India and East Asia and not in an inland colonization, which involved expensive conquests, e.g. B. in the African, Indian or Brazilian hinterland would have required.

The French military theorist André Beaufre made a distinction for the 19th and 20th centuries. Century three "schools of thought" European colonial warfare:

  1. Great Britain : Analogous to the basic principle of indirect colonial rule ( indirect rule ), colonial wars were not waged by genuinely British troops, if possible, but by indigenous rulers and their troops or auxiliary troops, which Beaufre referred to as the “strategy of proxy war”. Late 19th century was the now 200,000-strong British India Army mutated into a global colonial and imperial intervention force that in an emergency the defeat of uprisings in the Caribbean, Africa, East Asia and from 1919 in the Middle East could be used .
  2. France: France also used auxiliary troops such as the Senegalese, Zouaves or Ghoum to conquer and secure colonies, but these were strictly controlled by French officers. A French special path in every respect was and is up to the present day the Foreign Legion , which practically consisted only of Europeans and was founded specifically for the conduct of war in Algeria.
  3. Spain: Although the conquistadors used indigenous auxiliary troops, the Spanish colonial rule was in principle secured by troops from the mother country and / or militias from Creoles or mestizos .

Beaufre did not identify a specifically German school of thought; presumably because German colonial wars were only waged between 1884 and 1914 and, with a few exceptions in the GDR , these did not find any interest in military history in Germany even up to the end of the 20th century .

On the European side, colonial wars were usually waged in the same way as in European theaters of war, that is, European troops met in open field battles against indigenous armies such as in Mexico and Peru, which were often superior in terms of personnel, but inferior in terms of weapons technology and / or organization. Indigenous armies rarely won open battle over invaders, for example the Abyssinians in the Battle of Adua in 1896 over an Italian expeditionary corps equipped with the most modern weapons technology and logistics.

The guerrilla was mainly an indigenous strategy during the decolonization process , partly combined with terrorist tactics ( Palestine , Algeria , Indochina , Cyprus ). Exceptions such as B. Hendrik Witbooi or Jakobus Morenga in German South West Africa tend to confirm the rule.

For colonial warfare, the British military theorist, coined Charles Edward Callwell 1896 the concept of Small was , however, does not always synonymous with the German term guerrilla war can be seen.

Although the superiority of European powers in terms of weapons technology is often seen as a decisive factor in the colonial wars, this does not apply in this simplified form, even if a classic quote superficially suggests:

… Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim gun and they have not….

Hilaire Belloc , The Modern Traveler , 1898.

In fact, the European superiority in weapons technology played until the introduction of the percussion rifle or multi-loader such. B. the Henry rifle only played a significant role from the middle of the 19th century. Flintlock rifles were also used by African warriors, such as the Ashanti. It was not until the Maxim machine gun that there was a significant technological preponderance ( Battle of Omdurman 1898). The use of the machine gun , however, was largely limited to the open area; in dense bush or jungle its effectiveness was severely limited due to its considerable weight and immobility.

Indeed, organization, discipline and adaptation to the non-European theater of war played an essential role in the superiority of European colonial troops over indigenous opponents. Even more important were alliances of the colonial powers with regional allies, the exploitation of contradictions between indigenous power groups and the use of indigenous auxiliary troops. B. in German East Africa the Ruga-Ruga .

Sea power as a factor in the colonial wars: gunboat policy and foreign stations

Bombardment of Alexandria
Gunboat Yatagan

The steamship developed at the beginning of the 19th century had a decisive influence on the conduct of the colonial war. In contrast to the sailing ship , the machine-powered gunboat , especially shallow river gunboats , could operate in inaccessible coastal areas regardless of weather conditions and control currents far into the hinterland, such as the Nile , the Congo , the Mekong or the Yangtze . Its key role in European overseas expansion from the early 19th century onwards becomes clear when looking at the concept of gunboat policy .

With their naval units, the colonial powers had regional or supraregional reserves with which they could replenish local colonial contingents or move troop transports in an emergency. In the event of revolts against colonial rule, colonial elites or settlers could withdraw to war or merchant ships and await reinforcements from the mother country or neighboring colonies. Older gunboats and cruisers were mostly used in the colonies and stations abroad .

The Imperial Navy was talking with the cruiser squadron global maritime operational reserve, which in theory both in the German colonies in Africa and in the German protectorates in the South Pacific could operate in addition to the locally stationed units.

The naval infantry of the colonial powers often served as a colonial intervention reserve, as did the naval battalions of the Imperial Navy. The German leased area Kiautschou did not have its own colonial troops, but was from III. Seebataillon occupied in Cuxhaven .

Colonial troops and colonial police

French colonial troops around 1900. Contemporary depiction

In the colonies, the colonial powers usually set up special military formations that were primarily adapted to the climate and geography. In smaller colonies such as B. the German Togo or the South Sea possessions, only colonial police existed . The exclusive use of Europeans was the exception; as a rule, indigenous mercenaries were hired or recruited from other regions in Africa or Asia. Genuine colonial armies only owned the British Empire and France.

Cuera Dragoons in New Spain

The Cuera Dragoons in the Viceroyalty of New Spain were a force specially adapted to the specific conditions of their area of ​​operation (today's southwestern USA) . Usually consisting of mestizos , their equipment and armament represented an unusual synthesis of Aztec and European elements. They were integrated into the Mexican army after the independence of Mexico and only disbanded in the 1840s.

Foreign Legions

Both the French and Spanish Foreign Legions were mercenary troops specially formed for the colonial wars in North Africa. De facto, the staff consisted exclusively of Europeans, as indigenous aid troops did not seem to be relied upon in extreme situations.

French colonial troops

Fringe zouaaf

Independently of the Foreign Legion, various indigenous auxiliary troops served in the French colonies, such as Zouaves , Senegalese riflemen , Moroccan Gum and Spahi , which were also used in the European theater of war during the First World War and then partly as occupation troops in the Rhineland .

From 1900 to 1961 France had a genuine colonial army in the Armée coloniale , which was stationed in the North African colonies. Until 1900, the troupes de marine , established in 1622, were mainly responsible for the colonial warfare .

British Indian Army, Gurkhas

The British Indian Army and its mostly indigenous soldiers ( Sepoys ) were by far the largest colonial army of all powers. Around 1930 it comprised a good 300,000 members and had its own air force. The Indian Army was deployable globally; some of its units operated simultaneously in the Boer War, the Ashanti War, Somaliland and the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. From an imperial perspective, the Indian Army was militarily more important than the British Army in Great Britain itself, since the Royal Navy , later in combination with the Royal Air Force , was supposed to prevent foreign troops from landing on the British Isles.

The Gurkhas were and are a Nepalese mercenary force within the British Army, which was primarily used in colonial wars.

United States Marine Corps, United States Army Indian Scouts

The United States Marine Corps was not a colonial force in the strict sense of the word . Originally like the Royal Marines a ship police with additional tasks in the event of war, the Marines mutated into a colonial constabulary in the banana wars of 1898–1934 . In Haiti and the Dominican Republic they de facto established a military dictatorship , which was neither planned by the Marines themselves nor by the US government, but rather arose from the situation as an occupation force on site.

So-called National Guards were founded as auxiliary troops or as a replacement for the marines after their withdrawal ; the best known and most politically influential was the Guardia Nacional de Nicaragua under its first commander Anastasio Somoza García .

In contrast to the stereotypical image of the Indian wars conveyed by numerous western films , Indian auxiliary troops, mostly deployed as scouts , played a decisive role in suppressing indigenous resistance. The United States Army Indian Scouts existed from 1866 to 1947 and comprised up to 1500 members of the Crow and Pawnee in the 1870s / 80s . General George Crook deployed another Apache subdivision in the fight against Geronimo in 1883 .

The scout system was transferred to the Philippines after 1898 , where the Philippine Scouts were used as an auxiliary force to the US Army in the Philippine-American War .

Dutch East India Army

The Royal Dutch East India Army consisted of Dutch soldiers, European mercenaries and, above all, indigenous troops. The German share of the European contingent was up to 20% in the middle to the end of the 19th century, and before 1850 it was apparently even around 50%. In the event of war, the army was supported by so-called Schuttereyen , a colonial militia .

Belgian Force Publique (Congo)

The Force Publique in the Belgian Congo was a force made up of indigenous and African mercenaries and commanded by Belgian officers. She was instrumental in the atrocities in the Congo and launched a coup in 1960 against the government of Patrice Lumumba . Its best-known member was the later Congolese President Mobutu Sese Seko .

German protection troops

In the German Empire , protection troops were formed for the colonies of Cameroon , German South West Africa and German East Africa designated as protected areas . These were not subordinate to the Prussian War Ministry , but until 1896 to the Reichsmarineamt , from 1896 to 1907 to the colonial department of the Foreign Office and from 1907 until their dissolution in 1919 to the Reichskolonialamt, which emerged from the colonial department of the AA as a quasi German colonial ministry .

A uniform strategic or even tactical concept was not developed for the protection forces. Her spirit rector was Hermann von Wissmann , who was able to fall back on his experience in the Belgian Congo when setting up the police force for East Africa . Except for the German South West Africa protection force, in which only Europeans served, the protection forces recruited indigenous or other African mercenaries, e.g. B. from Liberia , Dahomey or Sudan .

Portuguese special forces

Basically, Portugal waged the colonial war 1961–1974 with conscripts both from the mother country and in the colonies that have been designated overseas provinces since 1952 for reasons of international law.

The secret police PIDE , which was heavily involved in the colonial warfare , formed its own special unit, the Flechas (Portuguese: arrows ). The Flechas were basically made up of indigenous people and often of defected or captured members of the liberation movements. Among other things, they were used in so-called pseudo-operations, ie as alleged guerrillas with the aim of luring real guerrilla groups into ambushes.

The Grupos Especiais (GE, special groups) in Mozambique were also formed from indigenous people by the Portuguese army . As a paramilitary formation, however, they were not formally part of the army. The GE were usually deployed in platoon strength under the leadership of officers who had completed training in special units.

The end of the colonial wars. The utilization of colonial experiences in the Cold War and after

Portuguese colonial war

The formal end of colonial rule did not mean the end of the military engagement of former colonial powers in their former colonies.

Both Great Britain and France have deployed troops such as the SAS or the Foreign Legion, even unofficially, in crisis situations that endanger friendly governments in former colonies . During the Konfrontasi in the mid-1960s, SAS units operated deep in the interior of Indonesia. A use of the SAS in the Dhofar uprising in the 1970s (Operation Storm) only became public in the late 1980s. France used the Foreign Legion several times in its former colonies in West Africa, for example in the civil war in Ivory Coast . Their use in the Battle of Kolwezi during the Shaba invasion of Zaire in 1978 was particularly spectacular .

During the Argentine military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 a transfer of the French doctrine from the Algerian War to Argentina ( Dirty War ) and from there to Central America took place in Operation Charly , where it was used in the Guatemalan Civil War , the Contra War and the Civil War in El Salvador came into use by the late 1980s.

The Iraq war and the Afghan war in the first decade of the 21st century led, especially among Anglo-American military theorists, to recourse to experiences of the colonial wars, including US General David Petraeus , who visited Panama, Honduras and El Salvador on business in the summer of 1986 and gained an insight into had received the Salvadoran Civil War. Petraeus became aware of the peculiarities of counterinsurgency through the novel The Centurions by Jean Lartéguy . Petraeus' research on colonial wars and the banana wars, in particular the Small Wars Manual of the Marines first published in 1940 , was incorporated into the field service regulations of the US Army for counterinsurgency . The use of combat drones to avoid personnel losses, favored by the US government in the Afghan war in recent years, also shows strong parallels to the strategy of imperial policing in the interwar period.

Eminent insurgent leaders and theorists of colonial military resistance

Important European generals and military theorists in colonial wars

See also


Non-fiction books, scientific works

  • Jaap A. de Moor, Hendrik L. Wesseling (Ed.): Imperialism and War. Essays on Colonial Wars in Asia and Africa. Leiden 1989.
  • Thoralf Klein , Frank Schuhmacher (Ed.): Colonial Wars. Military violence under the sign of imperialism. Hamburg 2006, ISBN 3-936096-70-8 .
  • Tanja Bührer , Christian Stachelbeck , Dierk Walter (eds.): Imperial Wars from 1500 to today. Structures - actors - learning processes. Schöningh, Paderborn et al. 2011, ISBN 978-3-506-77337-1 .
  • Dierk Walter: Organized Violence in European Expansion. Shape and logic of the imperial war. Hamburger Edition, Hamburg 2014, ISBN 978-3-86854-280-6 .
  • David Killingray, David Omissi (eds.): Guardians of empire: the armed forces of the colonial powers. c. 1700–1964, Manchester 2000.
  • Michael T. Klare, Peter Kornbluh (Eds.): Low Intensity Warfare. How the USA Fights Wars Without Declaring Them. New York 1988.
  • André Beaufre : Revolutionizing the image of war. New forms of violence. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart 1973.
  • Ivan Musicant: The Banana Wars. A History of the United States Military Intervention in Latin America from the Spanish-American War to the Invasion of Panama. New York 1990, ISBN 0-258-82210-4 .
  • David E. Omissi: Air power and colonial control. The Royal Air Force 1919-1939. Manchester 1990.
  • Bruce Vandervort: Wars of imperial conquest in Africa 1830-1914. London 1998.
  • Fernando Martínez Laínez: Banderas Lejanas. La exploración, conquista y defensa por España del territorio de los actuales Estados Unidos (Wide boundaries. Spain's exploration, conquest and defense of what is now the United States), Madrid (Edaf) 2009, ISBN 978-84-414-2119- 6 .
  • The Dutch-East Indian colonial soldier on the island of Java. In: Journal of Art, Science and the History of War. 72nd Volume 1848, pp. 182-208.
  • Walter Nuhn : Colonial Policy and Navy. The role of the Imperial Navy in establishing and securing the German colonial empire 1884–1914. Bernhard & Graefe Verlag, Bonn 2002, ISBN 3-7637-6241-8 .
  • Ken Connor: GHOST FORCE. The secret history of the SAS. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London 1998, ISBN 0-297-84080-0 .
  • Douglas Porch: Wars of Empire. Cassell, London 2001.
  • Robert M. Utley, Wilcomb E. Washburn: Indian Wars. Boston 2002.
  • Edwin Herbert: Small wars and skirmishes 1902-18. Early twentieth-century colonial campaigns in Africa, Asia, and the Americas , Nottingham (Foundry Books) 2003. ISBN 1-901543-05-6 .
  • Edwin Herbert: Risings and rebellions, 1919-1939. Interventions and colonial campaigns in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Nottingham 2007.
  • Michael Hochgeschwender : Colonial Wars as Experimental Sites for the War of Extermination? In: Dietrich Beyrau , Michael Hochgeschwender, Dieter Langewiesche (eds.): Forms of war. From antiquity to the present. Paderborn et al. 2007, pp. 269-290.
  • Christian Zentner , Gerd Schreiber: The wars of the post-war period. An illustrated history of military conflicts since 1945. Südwest-Verlag, Munich 1969.
  • Moritz Feichtinger, Stephan Malinowski: Constructive Wars? Reception and adaptation of the wars of decolonization in western democracies. In: History and Society. 37th vol., 2011, no. 2, pp. 275-305.
  • Chris Peers: The African wars. Warriors and soldiers in the colonial campaigns , Barnsley (Pen & Sword Military) 2010. ISBN 978-1-84884-121-5 .
  • Michael Burleigh : Small wars, faraway places. Global insurrection and the making of the modern world. 1945–1965, New York, NY (Viking) 2013. ISBN 978-0-670-02545-9 .
  • Rory Cormac: Confronting the Colonies. British intelligence and counterinsurgency , London (Hurst) 2013. ISBN 978-1-84904-293-2 .
  • Kaushik Roy: The Army in British India. From colonial warfare to total war 1857-1947 , London / New York (Bloomsbury) 2013. ISBN 978-1-4411-6845-0
  • Daniel Karch: Unlimited violence in the colonial periphery. The colonial wars in "German South West Africa" ​​and the "Sioux Wars" in the North American Plains , Stuttgart (Steiner) 2019. ISBN 978-3-515-12438-6 . ISBN 978-3-515-12436-2
  • Daniel R. Headrick: The Tools of Empire. Technology and European Imperialism in the Nineteenth Century . New York / Oxford 1981, ISBN 0-19-502831-7 .

Memoirs, fiction

Movie and TV

Web links

Wiktionary: Colonial War  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations