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In the US, "gringo" is usually understood as a disparaging reference to a foreigner (see the Merriam-Webster definition). What exactly does gringo mean in Spanish? Is it neutral, or does it have disparaging connotations? When is it considered offensive? What regional variations are there on the word's use?

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As an anecdote which only partially addresses the question: an Ecuadorian friend once called me gringo, and I objected that I am English. The next time she saw me she apologised, because she'd done some research and come to the conclusion that it was a pejorative for US Americans - previously she had considered it a neutral term for all anglosajones. –  Peter Taylor Jan 12 '12 at 12:35
    
I have always understood gringo to be a disparaging comment aimed at whites in the USA (who don't speak spanish, of course). –  Ethan Furman Jan 13 '12 at 22:04
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7 Answers

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Note: Apologies for posting this here. I know this is not exactly the answer but it wouldn't fit as a comment.

While looking for the origin of the word gringo, I found a reference to El Matadero, a short tale written by Esteban Echevarría around 1838. At the time, the word gringo was already known:

Salió el gringo, como pudo, después a la orilla, más con la apariencia de un demonio tostado por las llamas del infierno que un hombre blanco pelirrubio.

You can find the whole text here for those interested in reading it.

Wikipedia mentions that the word had been known since the 18th century:

All these folk etymologies place the origin of the word gringo in the 19th century. This is a problem because the word has been documented from the 18th century, including the 1786 Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes y sus correspondientes en las 3 lenguas francesa, latina e italiana by Esteban de Terreros y Pando, and South American literature. In Esteban Echeverría's El matadero (1840), and in José Hernández's Martín Fierro (1872, 1879), the word gringo refers to persons from England

As far as the meaning, I would concur that in Latin America is used to refer to anyone with white skin, blond hair, green or blue eyes and a "peculiar" pronunciation of the Spanish language, regardless of his nationality.

In high school, I was taught that during the Vietnam war, the word gringo was used by the Vietnamese to tell the american soldiers, whose uniforms where olive green, to go home; hence the word gringo: green-go (go home, presumably). I doubt that this is true but I thought I'd mention it. :)

UPDATE:

I just saw César's answer. Interestingly enough, César was told sort of the opposite of what I was told; that is, that the word Green-go was used by the american troops to encourage their soldiers to move forward.

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That's what I heard too about the word gringo: Green gooooo! –  César Jan 12 '12 at 15:46
    
But still, I doubt the truthfulness of that fact –  César Jan 12 '12 at 15:54
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Green-Go is a silly myth, that is easily disproven, because the word 'gringo' was documented long before any American troops wore green (which was first in WWII). –  Flimzy Jan 14 '12 at 5:11
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The "green go" myth is also told about Mexico-US wars and even in Brazil in Portuguese there's a parallel origin myth of the word. To have any credence whatsoever you would need as a minimum to find similar pidgin Spanish/Portuguese/Amerindian+English constructions. It's utter bollocks but it's a powerful meme that will surely never die. –  hippietrail Jan 14 '12 at 10:34
    
Nice literature drop; such a gruesome story. –  Zane Edward Dockery Apr 2 at 22:50
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I'm pretty sure it refers to something like a Caucasian and naive American, or any American Caucasian in general. My native language is Spanish, and I'm 99% sure that is what people mean when they say it.

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In Argentina, the word gringo was quite used in the past (not so much today, I'd say), specially in the inland, but with some ambiguity. Generally it pointed to people with "foreign" aspect (not from Spain or native America), presumably anglosaxon, specially english, blonde hair and pale-rosy skin, etc. But it was also applied sometimes to some Italian immigrants. Not pejorative at all, in my experience. It was even sometimes applied, afectionally, to local people that had some traces of that appeareance, even if they were fully criollos; similarly as the word negro was used for slightly dark-skinned members of the family (I myself recall some uncles and cousins...)

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I agree about the Argentinian usage. Gringo used to be a rather neuter term (or even affectinate), not pejorative, to refer mostly to Italian immigrants or their descendants (at least during most of the 20th century). "Gringo" used to be a very common nickname too. Nowadays, my perception is that "gringo" is used almost exclusively to refer to American (as in the rest of Latin America) and it tends to be mildly derogatory. –  Juan Pablo Califano Apr 19 '12 at 14:46
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Etymology isn't quite clear, but it's generally agreed that it's originates from Mexico or Central America. Meaning varies, and may mean:

  • in Central America means principally an US American;
  • in most of Hispano-America means foreigner of Anglo-Saxon origin;
  • in some countries it means white Caucasian, especially blond one;

Merriam-Webster definition is incorrect, as word gringo is not used in Spain. Somewhat analogous term used in Spain would be guiri, which means foreign tourist, especially from northern Europe.

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I believe the dictionaries do not say gringo is used in Spain and also that the origin is not in the Americas. They say it originated in Spain a couple of hundred years ago, spread to the Americas, and has since ceased to be used in Spain. This is perfectly normal in the histories of words. The meanings have been various across both history and space. Obviously today it's much easier to analyse just the way it's currently used and much has been lost to time, especially for a fairly colloquial word. –  hippietrail Jan 14 '12 at 10:50
    
I don't think tourist is inherent in guiri - it seems to be applied equally to immigrants. –  Peter Taylor Jan 14 '12 at 22:59
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In Perú we call gringo to every person (foreigners and locals) with blond hair, white skin, blue eyes, etc. I was told (not sure if this is real fact) that the word itself came from the phrase Green go! used by Americans in war to order their troops to move forward.

But I would say that when we use gringo we refer, mainly, to Americans (USA).

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"Green go" is easily dismissed as a myth, as the word "gringo" was used long before the Americans used green military uniforms (which was first done in WWII). –  Flimzy Jan 14 '12 at 5:12
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It's a trick question. Since the word gringo truly born of the war between USA and Mexico. Why Mexicans began to tell them "Green Go Home", so he quickly began to distort the word and spread throughout the Latin America. Until Gringo, also changed its meaning a bit today is

gringo, ga.

  1. adj. coloq. Extranjero, especialmente de habla inglesa, y en general hablante de una lengua que no sea la española. U. t. c. s.
  2. adj. coloq. Dicho de una lengua: extranjera. U. t. c. s. m.
  3. adj. Am. Mer., Cuba, El Salv., Hond. y Nic. estadounidense. Apl. a pers., u. t. c. s.
  4. adj. Ur. inglés (‖ natural de Inglaterra). U. t. c. s.
  5. adj. Ur. ruso (‖ natural de Rusia). U. t. c. s.
  6. m. y f. Bol., Hond., Nic. y Perú. Persona rubia y de tez blanca.
  7. m. coloq. Lenguaje ininteligible.

Is classified as an insult, that this is somewhat pejorative and discriminatory. Until now no more variations to registration of the word.

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The various meanings are right but the origin story is one of many similar myths claiming to be from Mexico, Brazil, or even Vietnam. The word was first used in print in Spain. US soldiers did not wear green til the 40s. No such pidgin similar to "green go (home)" is documented to have ever been used, nor with other verbs or colours or anything vaguely similar. The origin story is a folk etymology much more recent than the word made up by people and spreading as a meme because it makes a good story. –  hippietrail Jan 14 '12 at 11:00
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I researched the origin of the word "gringo" when I was in graduate school after one of my professors offered the silly "green-go" myth as the explanation. The term has clearly been in use for centuries to describe non-Spanish people. The most widely accepted theory among etymologists was that the word was derived from "griego," the Spanish word for Greek. According to the theory, the preponderance of Greek sailors in the Mediterranean meant that Greeks were the most common foreigners that were present in Spain in the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance era. Over time, the word came to be applied to all people of non-Spanish origin, and was corrupted from "griego" to "gringo." Since English and Dutch visitors became more common than Greeks in later centuries, the term had become associated more with northern Europeans by the time the Spanish colonized the Americas and brought the term over with them.

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