I get called “gringo” a lot here, and have been since I first arrived in Mahahaul. At first I thought it was a derogatory, but I have come to realize it is not necessarily so. I am sure a lot of Mexicans and people from Latin America use the term to distinguish between people from the USA and the rest of the world, and can be used as slang a lot of the time.
My name, Stewart, does not have an equivalent in the Spanish language, and for some Mexicans it is had to understand. I have had several Mexicans call me “Estardo”, which is not even close. So since I have been here I get called “gringo” a lot, because sometimes people can’t pronounce my name.
When I worked at the port I got called, “Gringo Gamecock”, “Carolina”, “Gamecock”, and several other variations of where I am from. I have had people yell at me “Hey Gringo” a lot, and that does not bother me. I don’t think they are using it in a derogatory towards me, it is just the only thing they know to call me. In fact one person told me that a lot of the locals here call me “the gringo writer” when they are talking about me. I think that is pretty cool, and is a compliment to me.
I have had other people also tell me that I am considered “The Gringo” by a lot of the locals and Mexicans, because I have been here a long time, and I am sometimes kind a bridge between the people here from the USA, and the local population here. In fact when people come to Mahahual and want to find me, I just tell them to ask anybody on the malecon where they can find “The Gringo”, and they always find me. Everybody on the malecon here knows me as “The Gringo”.
I notice when I order food to go I always notice they write “gringo” on my order, instead of my name. I also notice people talking about me in Spanish, (especially when I was at the port), and they would all use “gringo” when talking about me. And I call honestly can tell you, sometimes it was not nice. When I worked at the port I did not let them know I spoke Spanish, so I could hear what they said about me, behind my back. I got called “pinche gringo”, and other words to describe me.
So yesterday after I got my laundry, some Mexicans were making fun of me because they wrote “Gringo” on my laundry sack instead of my name. So I asked a couple of these smartass Mexicans where the term “Gringos” came from. They then gave me the pat answer I hear from most Mexicans I ask that question to. They said is started in the Mexican-American war in 1846, when the Mexicans shouted to the USA troops, “Green go home”, because of the USA soldiers uniforms, and the USA was invading Mexico. Well come to find out this is a legend, in 1846 USA troops did not wear green uniforms until the start of WWI.
So last night in did some research into the origin of the word “Gringo” and here is what I came up with.
The Origins of the Word “Gringo”
While generally seen as an insult, the word “gringo,” used in the Spanish language to describe a foreigner, may not be as discourteous as most believe. The term itself has had a mixed and mysterious past, and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Let’s take a look at some of the main theories as to where it originated.
5 Strange Theories on the Origins of the Word “Gringo”
1. Green Uniforms
When the United States invaded Mexico, naturally some people were upset. So the denizens of Mexico saw the Yanks wearing their green outfits and said (in English, for some reason) “Green, go home!” Eventually, this was shortened to “gringo!” and became the word used today.
This clear theory is mostly just folklore. At the time, the United States military did not wear green clothing. This style didn’t take hold until World War 1, well after the invasion of Mexico.
2. Green Horns
Another interesting theory comes from the term for anapprentice jeweler. In Europe, they were referred to as “green horns.” This term drifted over to the United States, and people on the east coast of the nation were called the term, and eventually – so the story goes – Spanish-speakers appropriated “green horns” into “gringos.” (Folks on the west coast were called, appropriately, “westmen.”)
The origin of this theory is certainly in question too. Mainly because the term dates back to the 1800s, and “gringo” can actually be traced further back than that, read on!
3. Terreros y Pando
The first written example of “gringo” comes from Terreros y Pando’s “Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes y sus correspondientes en las 3 lenguas francesa, latina e italiana.” In this 1796 book, there’s a passage that states, “gringos llaman en Málaga a los extranjeros que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo nombre con particularidad a los irlandeses.”
This translates to “gringos is what in Malaga they call foreigners who have any kind of accent which prevents them from speaking easy and natural Castillian; and in Madrid they give the same name in particular to the Irish.”
Basically, “gringo” was used to describe someone who the listener couldn’t understand properly.
4. Greek to Me
Have you ever heard the phrase “it’s all Greek to me?” Basically, this means whatever’s being said is so foreign and strange that you have no idea what they mean. Well, this isn’t just an English saying. In some Spanish cultures, anyone who is unintelligible is speaking “Griego,” or Greek.
However, “gringo” might not actually come from “Griego.” Scholars argue that it would take a few phonetic steps to get to that point. Instead, they say it comes from the Caló language from a variant of (pere) gringo, which means “wayfarer,” or “stranger.”
5. Musical Origins
Now that we’ve basically gotten it nailed down, let’s hear one more from folklore. During the Mexican-American War, several hundred Irish were sent down to fight for the US. While there, they deserted; Mexico was predominantly Catholic, like the Irish, while the US was predominantly Protestant.
Since the Irish’s main color was green and they sang songs with names like “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!” and “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the Mexicans affectionately called them “gringos.” An ironic turn for a term that’s usually seen as very derogatory and an intriguing possibility given the use of the term in Madrid to also refer to the Irish.
This derogatory Spanish term for a white English-speaking person does indeed have interesting stories linked to it, the one you mention probably being the most common, though most versions of the tale name the song asGreen Grow the Rushes, O. Some tellers prefer to associate the song with Irish volunteers serving in Simon Bolivar’s army in the early 19th century, or to American troops attempting to track down Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916-17, all of whom were supposedly singing from the same song sheet (the last of these often mentions Black Jack Pershing, since to attach a famous name to a story improves its credibility no end). Other tales link gringo with the green uniforms (hence green coats) that were worn by American troops of the period, who might have been urged by the locals “green go home”.
The real story is rather more interesting, since it takes us to two continents and involves four languages. A medieval Latin proverb referred to something unintelligible: Graecum est; non potest legi (“It is Greek; it cannot be read”). Shakespeare borrowed it in Julius Caesar: “Those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.” It’s the origin of our modern saying “it’s all Greek to me”.
The Spanish version of this Latin proverb was hablar en griego, literally to talk in Greek, and hence to speak unintelligibly. This was known in Spain no later than the last decades of the eighteenth century. Esteban de Terreros explained in his dictionary of 1787, El Diccionario Castellano, that “gringos llaman en Málaga a los estranjeros, 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” (“Foreigners in Malaga are called gringos, who have certain kinds of accent that prevent them from speaking Spanish with an easy and natural locution; and in Madrid they give this name to the Irish in particular for the same reason”). He explained that gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego.
The first recorded use of the word in English is in 1849, which does rather suggest it was the Mexican War that brought it to the attention of Americans. It appears in the diary of John Woodhouse Audubon, the son of the wildlife illustrator, who recorded on 13 June in that year that “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes’”. As his diary wasn’t published until 1906, public notice of the word in America more probably first came about through a book by one Lieutenant Wise of the US Navy that appeared in January 1850: Los Gringos; or, an inside View of Mexico and California, with Wanderings in Peru, Chili, and Polynesia.
So I hoped you liked today’s history lesson on the origin of the word “Gringo”, and its history. So remember if you come to Mexico and some one calls you a “Gringo”, don’t get insulated, they are not being derogatory, it is the only word they know how use, to describe people from the USA. It does not bother me, and never has if they call me “Gringo” here.
Thanks for reading,
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina