Origin of Word Gringo

There are a few negative words for Anglo-Americans in the Spanish Language. Two of these words that are repeatable come to mind instantly: Gavacho and Gringo . Gavacho means someone who comes from the French Basque country, and they were seen as “other,” by the Spaniards, when displaced, they arrived in Spain from France in the middle ages. So, as the language evolved, and the Spaniards wished to speak despairingly of a foreigner , they might call him a Gavacho . When the indigenous of Mexico were learning Spanish, and heard the word, they incorporated it into the language too, and the true etymology of a word which refers to a person of French heritage from the Basque region has had little import in the last thousand years, and it is now commonly used to refer to any and all Anglo-Americans.

The term Gringo has assimilated itself into the language much deeper than has Gavacho . Gringo can be a quite friendly appellation, and has in most instances lost its sting as a derogatory term unless spat out in anger. Most Gringos have co-opted the word, and once that happens, and we refer to ourselves as “Gringos” or “Gringas” it is hard for others to use it toward us derogatorily. The Merriam-Webster’s Book of Word Histories gives us three theories of the derivation of the word Gringo. See which one sounds true to you.

1. During the Mexican War from 1846 – 48, a favorite song of the American soldiers was a song by Robert Burns: “Green Grow the Rashes, O!” From this song the word Gringo derived.

2. The American soldiers wore green and the Mexicans picked up on “Green go home!”

Well, if you picked one of the above, you won’t get a prize. The much earlier use of the word Gringo, in Spain, disproves these first two theories.

According to The Merriam-Webster’s Book of Word Histories, The word Gringo came from the Medieval Latin proverb, “Graecum est; non potesi leg,” or, “It is Greek and cannot be read,” which is the ancestor of the popular “Its Greek to me.”

In Spanish, hablar en griego means to speak unintelligibly. Griego , slightly altered, became Gringo. According to the Diccionario Castellano of P. Esteban de Terreros y Pando, published in 1787, Gringos are extranjeros (foreigners) that cannot pronounce Spanish well. The first English record of the word Gringo is an entry in the diary of artist John James Audubon’s son, J.W. Audubon’s Western Journal for 1849. In it, he complains: “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called Gringos.”

So, here we have it. Gringos are people who pronounce and use Spanish so badly that they can’t be understood. Thus, Gringoisms!

Do you know how many Gringos have announced they were pregnant, when they were trying to say they were embarrassed? See next Thursday’s Gringoisms in the free learning section to avoid embarrassing yourself.

This entry was posted in Mexican Slang, Newsletter Archive.

One response to “Origin of Word Gringo”

  1. anne moon says:

    Well, Rabbie Burns did write Green Grow the Rashes O, but that was NOT the song sung by the soldiers. They sang Green Grow the Rushes O–which is a way of remembering the 12 apostles–and is a good marching song. Our family used to sing this song on car trips when I was a child as it goes on FOREVER!
    I will be in San Miguel soon, visiting your student, Liz Hodder, so maybe I’ll see you.
    Regards from Canada!

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