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? What's its origin?
English with Original Quotes in Spanish
(Answer with quotes translated below)
The overwhelming evidence is that gringo originated in Spain in the 1700s or earlier from griego, ‘Greek’, in the sense of unintelligible language. It applied first to language, but soon after also to those who spoke it. As the word spread throughout the Spanish-speaking Americas it kept this general meaning, but also took more specialised meanings according to local circumstance; hence ‘U.S. national’ in Mexico and other countries; ‘blonde, pale-skinned person’ in Bolivia and Peru, etc. (see gringo in Real Academia Española, which glaringly omits Mexico from the list of countries using gringo as ‘U.S. national’). For a detailed account of the history of the word see Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, “Acerca del origen de la palabra gringo”, Biblioteca de Mexico, no. 62-63, Ciudad de México, 2001, p. 98-103 (henceforth Origen):
The earliest recorded use of gringo is from 1765, in Esteban de Terreros y Pando, Diccionario castellano, Madrid, published in 1786-96, but completed in 1765, quoted in Origen, p. 99 (original spelling and my boldface in all quotes):
Gringos, llaman en Málaga a los extrajeros que tienen cierta especie de acento que los priva de una locución fácil y natural castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo y por la misma causa, con particularidad a los irlandeses.
The next occurrence in Google Books is from 1798, in Antonio de Capmany y Montpalu, Comentario sobre la nueva traducción castellana de ‘Las aventuras de Telemaco’ (Madrid, 1798), where it seems to refer to foreigners with poor command of Spanish syntax:
Solemos decir: allí vienen tres hombres persiguiéndome; y solo los gringos dirán: allí tres hombres que vienen me persiguen.
The derivation from griego was defended by Joan Corominas, Breve diccionario etimológico de la lengua castellana, Madrid, 1967 (Origen, p. 99):
Gringo, 1765-1783. Se aplicó primeramente a la lengua y luego al que la hablaba. Es alteración de griego en el sentido de «lengua incomprensible», 1615. Valor que en España se dio por antonomasia al nombre de la lengua de Grecia, como resultado indirecto de la costumbre de mencionarla junto con el latín, y de la doctrina observada por la Iglesia de que el griego no era necesario para la erudición católica.
Griego would have changed into gringo in two steps, according to Joan Corominas, Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua Castellana, Madrid, 1954 (Origen, p. 100):
La alteración fonética constó de dos tiempos: 1ʃ griego-grigo, reducción normal y corriente en castellano […] 2ʃ grigo-gringo, tránsito que no puede admitirse como fonético […] pero tiene carácter imitativo del sonido de n velar, imposible en muchos casos para el español, pero frecuente y característico ce ciertos idiomas extranjeros como el inglés (la terminación –ing y voces muy repetidas como drink pudieron desempeñar un papel en este caso) […] otras palabras castellanas del mismo tipo, como ringo-ringo, «extravagancia», pudieran ayudar.
The Greek connection was taken as true in the 1800s, for instance in this 1805 Nuevo diccionario francés-español by D. Antonio de Capmany y Montpalu, (Madrid, 1805; entries hebreu and parler):
Hebreu. s.m. Hebreo: la lengua hebrea = (fig. y fam.) Gringo, griego : aplica-se á lo que se dice ó escribe sin entenderse.
Parler […] Dícese parler hebreu, bas-breton, haut-allemand : hablar en griego , en guirigav , en gringo.
GRINGO. m. fam. Lenguaje que no se entiende. [Correspondencia catalana] Grech, gringo.
But already in those days there were folk etymologies around. For instance B. Vinuña MacKenna in História de Valparaiso, Valparaiso, 1869, records the “ingenious theory” popular in Valparaiso among “both gringos and natives” that gringo comes from a verse in a Scottish song, “green grow the rushes, O”. He explains however that:
[l]a palabra gringo, que ha dado lugar a tantas falsas interpretaciones, como la de Valparaiso, se deriva sencillamente de un proverbio español, o mas bien, de la degeneración de una palabra de éste. Hablar en griego, decían los antiguos españoles por aquello que no entendiam, i después vulgarmente corria lo mismo, hablar en gringo. De esto vino que cuando en América comenzaron a ver por la primera vez ingleses, i a no entender su lengua, deciam que hablaban en gringo, i de aquí es todavía que el vulgo llama gringos, en Chile como en Venezuela, en Buenos Aires como en Méjico, a todos los estranjeros, aunque sean nacidos en Leipsig o en Copenhague.
As the word spread throughout the Americas, it sometimes took on more specialised meanings, as explained by Joan Corominas Diccionario crítico etimológico de la lengua Castellana, Madrid, 1954 (Origen, p. 99):
mientras que en toda América se generalizó la aplicación a las personas que hablaban un lenguaje incomprensible, aunque fuese romance (con la excepción del catalán y el gallego-portugués), en algunas partes hay especialización a ciertas naciones, especialmente conocidas allí: en la Argentina es frecuente aplicarlo a los italianos, en Méjico sólo designa a los norte-americanos, etc.
That Portuguese-speakers were spared the epithet is also confirmed in 1889 by D. Daniel Granada, Vocabulario Rioplatense Razonado:
GRINGO, ga, adj. – Término vulgar con que se moteja al extranjero cuya habla difiere totalmente de la castellana, como el inglés, el alemán, el francés, el italiano. Así no dicen nunca al español, al hispano-americano, al brasileño, ni al portugués. Por lo regular usase sustantivado.
«Gringo, m. Griego, en la fr. fig. y fam. hablar en gringo, hacerlo en lenguaje ininteligible.» (La Acad. )
Brazilians appear not to have returned the kindness when they imported the word in the 1800s, and it looks as though they initially used it especially for Argentines, but now it applies to any foreigner. See Origem de gringo in Portuguese Language SE. In Portugal the word is known as a Mexican word for U.S. nationals, but is not really used.
English Only (Quotes Translated)
The earliest recorded use of gringo is from 1765, in Esteban de Terreros y Pando, Diccionario castellano, Madrid, published in 1786-96, but completed in 1765, quoted in Origen, p. 99 (my boldface and my tranlation from Spanish in all quotes):
Gringos, so do people in Málaga call foreigners that have a certain accent that prevents them from speaking Spanish fluently and naturally; and in Madrid the same name is given for the same reason to the Irish.
We say: allí vienen tres hombres persiguiéndome; and only the gringos will say: allí tres hombres que vienen me persiguen.
Gringo, 1765-1783. It was said first of the language and immediately of those who spoke it. It is a modification of “griego” [‘Greek’] in the sense of “incomprehensible language,” 1615, which originated in Spain by antonomasia of the name of the Greek language, as an indirect outcome of the habit of mentioning it alongside Latin, and of the Church doctrine that Greek was unnecessary for Catholic scholarship.
The phonetic change occurred in two steps: 1ʃ griego-grigo, common reduction in Spanish […] 2ʃ grigo-gringo, change that cannot have been phonetic […] but imitates the velar sound n, impossible for a Spaniard in many cases, but common in certain foreign languages such as English (the –ing ending and frequent words such as drink may have played a role in this case) […] other Spanish words of the same type, such as ringo-ringo, ‘extravagance’, may have helped.
Hebreu. s.m. Hebrew: the Hebraic language = (fig. and infrm.) Gringo, Greek: it is said of what is said or written that cannot be understood.
Parler […] It is said parler hebreu, bas-breton, haut-allemand : speak in Greek , in “guirigav” , in Gringo.
Gringo. m. infrm. Incomprehensible language. [Catalan] Grech, Gringo.
the Word gringo, which has lent itself to so many false interpretation, just as Valparaiso has, derives simply from a Spanish saying, or more properly, from the degeneration of a word in it. Hablar en griego [‘speak in Greek’] is what ancient Spaniards would say of what they did not understand, and later they would typically say hablar en gringo [‘speak in Gringo’]. So when people in America started seeing Englishmen for the first time and would not understand their language, they would say that they spoke in gringo, and so it is that people, in Chile as in Venezuela, in Buenos Aires as in Mexico, call all foreigners gringos whether they come from Leipzig or Copenhagen.
while in all the Americas it was generalized to anyone who spoke an incomprehensible language, even if it was a romance language (except for Catalan and Galician-Portuguese), in some regions it applied especially to certain nations that were especially well known there: in Argentina it is common to call it to Italians; in Mexico it refers to US nationals only, etc.
GRINGO, ga, adj.―Mocking word for a foreigner whose language is completely different from Spanish, such as English, German, French, or Italian. So it is not used for Hispano-Americans, Brazilians, or the Portuguese. It is usually used as a noun.
“Gringo, m. Griego, in the fig. and infrm. phrase hablar en gringo [‘speak in Gringo’] to speak in an incomprehensible language,” (La Acad.)
In Argentina, the word gringo was quite used in the past (not so much today, I'd say), especially in the inland, but with some ambiguity. Generally it pointed to people with "foreign" aspect (not from Spain or native), presumably anglo saxon, 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, affectionately, to local people that had some traces of that appearance, 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...)
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 in its article gringo 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. :)
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.
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).
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.
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.
As an early American Military Historian I found a story that goes, but is not substantiated by documents, that the origin of the word came from the song, "Green Grow the Lilacs". The Latino populations liked the song put most could only remember the first two English words "Green Grow....." they related the song to Americans because of soldiers who sang the song. So they referred Americans to "Gringos". This explanation sounds more believable although this theory was said to be untrue. I would tend to believe this more than the previous explanations. "The song (Irish origin) title is familiar as the source of a folk etymology for the word gringo that states that the Mexicans misheard U.S. troops singing "green grow" during the Mexican-American War."
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
- adj. coloq. Extranjero, especialmente de habla inglesa, y en general hablante de una lengua que no sea la española. U. t. c. s.
- adj. coloq. Dicho de una lengua: extranjera. U. t. c. s. m.
- adj. Am. Mer., Cuba, El Salv., Hond. y Nic. estadounidense. Apl. a pers., u. t. c. s.
- adj. Ur. inglés (‖ natural de Inglaterra). U. t. c. s.
- adj. Ur. ruso (‖ natural de Rusia). U. t. c. s.
- m. y f. Bol., Hond., Nic. y Perú. Persona rubia y de tez blanca.
- 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.
I´ve heard this word used by a Vietnamese interviewee in exactly the same derogatory sense as it is often used -nay, usually used - in Spanish, irrespective of the Spanish-speaking country concerned. Whether or not it is pushed as very offensive or just slightly offensive, the sense is the same as "chink" "paki" "kraut" "commie" etc; there is no way to remove all trace of offense from these words, no matter how you frame them.
Just putting it out there that the word gringo is also part of Vietnamese vocabulary, at least.
Definitively, the word "Gringo" at the very first, in Mexico, was assigned to the troops of Generals Taylor and Worth, moving in from what would become Brownsville, on their way to Monterrey. They were following the orderly retreat of Mexican General Pedro Ampudia who was wisely limiting contact and engaging on a harassing manner. The American troops would go into smart march when entering villages and communities and bring the musicians up to cut a tune. To be sure, American military personnel did not wear olive drab, green, or camouflage until the approach of the Second World War.
Among the most popular tunes, and marching songs, of the day was "Green Grow the Rushes, Oh! In an effort to maintain as good a set of relations with the resident enemy civilian population, the men were told to indulge, tolerate, and befriend the locals.
This was relatively easy because the children, especially the boys, would rush out and gaze with wonder at the huge horses and mules, the uniforms, rifled muskets and cannon, caissons and conveyances. Frequently and repetitively the American soldiers would do marching exercises and sing the marching songs, especially....Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!.
As words with the "double r" in Spanish are somewhat difficult for a Gringo to handle without some error....(ie 'ferrocarril' for railroad) for a Mexican,especially a child, sounding a second plain single r in the interior of a word is also difficult to execute perfectly.
The children would demand, adamantly, for the soldiers to sing their marching songs, jumping up and down, shouting "Canta 'Gringo'! 'Canta Gringo'. This began in Camargo at the junction of the Rio Grande and the Rio San Juan, where flat-bottomed supply ships were delivering war supplies, and actually employing Mexican national locals to move, and reloading supplies on ordnance and quartermaster conveyances.
The term and the continued practice of performing for the nervous and even resentful locals assured that the continued shrieking and crying out of the children "Gringo, canta Gringo" would continue to Monterrey and beyond. The the American occupation of Monterrey, one of the "public relations" activities by the American military was to have chorales in the public parks and their elaborate gazebos....trading songs with local trobadors and boleros. The Americans northern invasion was blunted outside of Saltillo to the west a bit, and the Army was forced to return to Monterrey and provide police services and general social service until the end of hostilities.
The word "gringo" begins to appear in the public lexicon in the Excelsior and Universal newspapers of Mexico City, and the El Norte of Monterrey as a non-perjorative identifier for anything American, especially "gueros" (lighties), although at that time, especially in northern Mexico, and especially in that area of northcentral and northeastern Mexico the vast majority of the population was either white or substantially white (caucasian). It would have been more common to find people with greater Jewish ancestry than Indian (indigenous).
Finally, the most common pejoratives for the title or adjective "American" were Presbyteriano, Protestante, Vikin~o (viking), Hun, Judio (Jew), Hereticos, filibusteros (raiders, rustlers, scourging invaders) during those times. Gringo was a kind word, relatively. My brother (Que en Paz Descanse) and I made it a mission in life to restore the neutrality of the word "Gringo". We wanted to make it as it had been, totally dependent upon how the word was said and in what context. My blog, for instance is "A Gringo in Rural Mexico" privatouring.blogspot.com
Thank one and all for the patience that was rendered.