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Gringo (/ˈɡrɪŋɡ/, Spanish: [ˈɡɾiŋɡo], Portuguese: [ˈɡɾĩɡu]) is a slang Spanish and Portuguese word used in Latin American countries to denote White, non-Hispanic foreigners, most often from an English-speaking country or a French-speaking country. The term can be applied to someone who is actually a foreigner, or it can denote a strong association or assimilation into foreign (particularly English-speaking) society and culture.

Roger Axtell, a travel etiquette expert, notes that "the word gringo is not necessarily a bad word. It is slang but is derogatory only in its use and context."[1]

The word was originally used in Spain to denote foreign, non-native speakers of Spanish.[2]


The word gringo was first recorded in Volume II of[3] the Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes y sus correspondientes en las 3 lenguas francesa, latina e italiana (Castilian Dictionary including the Words of the Sciences and the Arts, and their Correspondents in 3 Languages: the French, the Latin, and the Italian, 1787), by Terreros y Pando, wherein it is defined as:

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, y por la misma causa con particularidad a los irlandeses.

Gringos is what, in Malaga, they call foreigners who have a certain type of accent that prevents them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they give the same name, in particular, to the Irish.[4]

The dominant view among etymologists is that gringo is most likely a variant of griego ‘Greek’ speech (cf. Greek to me). Nevertheless, it has been suggested that griego > gringo is phonetically unlikely, because the derivation requires two steps: (i) griego > grigo, and (ii) grigo > gringo. Instead it is claimed that gringo might derive from Caló, the language of the Romani people of Spain, as a variant of (pere)gringo ‘peregrine’, ‘wayfarer’, and ‘stranger’.[5][6][7][8][9]

The gringo entry in the Nuevo diccionario francés-español (New French–Spanish Dictionary, 1817), by Antonio de Capmany, records:[10]

. . . hablar en griego, en guirigay, en gringo.[11]

. . . to speak in Greek, in gibberish, in gringo.

Gringo, griego: aplícase a lo que se dice o escribe sin entenderse.[12]

Gringo, Greek : applies to what is said or written without understanding it.

Moreover, besides “Hablar en gringo”, Spanish also contains the analogous phrase “hablar en chino (To speak in Chinese)”, when referring to someone whose language is difficult to understand, thereby re-enforcing the notion that alluding to the languages of other nations is a cliché. Furthermore, in the 1840s, Johann Jakob von Tschudi said that gringo was common Peruvian Spanish usage in Lima:

Gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans. It is probably derived from griego (Greek). The Germans say of anything incomprehensible, “That sounds like Spanish”, — and, in like manner, the Spaniards say of anything they do not understand, “That is Greek”.[13]

In English[edit]

"Gringo" has been in use in the English language since the 19th century.[14] According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded use of the term in an English source is in John Woodhouse Audubon's Western Journal of 1849-1850,[15] in which Audubon reports that his party were hooted and shouted at and called "Gringoes" while passing through the town of Cerro Gordo, Veracruz.[16]

Folk etymologies[edit]

There are several conjectures within folk etymology that purport to derive the origin of gringo from word coincidences.

The most widespread popular etymology in Brazil[citation needed] is that "gringo" is derived from the English words "green" and "go", implying the foreigners that went to the Amazon rainforest and exploited the nature for profit, taking all the "green" (i.e. nature) away. In Puerto Rico, some people also believe that the word "gringo" originated from the words "green" and "go" and that it refers to the desire of some locals to have the U.S. military (who allegedly wore green uniforms) leave the island by telling them: "Green, go!"

Rafael Abal considered the word gringo to derive from English "green horn", a novice, or raw, inexperienced person. He claimed that in the United States, men from the west coast are called "westman", while people from the east coast are called "green horns".[citation needed]

Another folk etymology that was reported in U.S. newspapers of the time[17] connects the word with the song Green Grow the Lilacs, by English king Henry VIII, versions of which were sung around campfires by English-speaking Americans, and/or sung while marching in the captured capital of Mexico City in September 1847.

When the Mexican-American War began in 1846, several hundred recently immigrated Irish, German, and other Roman Catholic Americans who were sent by the U.S. government to fight against Mexico came to question why they were fighting against a Catholic country for a Protestant one, combined with resentment over their treatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, and deserted to join forces with Mexico. Led by Captain Jon Riley of County Galway, they called themselves St. Patrick's Battalion (in Spanish, Batallón de San Patricio)[18] and frequently sang the song "Green Grow the Rushes, O".[citation needed].

The 3rd Cavalry were the only U.S. Cavalry unit to wear green stripes on their trousers, and some believed that during their campaigns in the Southwest they were referred to as Gringos because of that stripe. Because of the prominence of Irish Americans in the regiment, the regimental song was "Green Goes the Rushes, Ho". It is possible since the soldiers would sing this song as they rode on their horses, the Mexicans associated them with "Green Go...".

Yet another version is on display currently at the Alamo, in an exhibit claiming that the term gringo originated from Mexican soldiers hearing their Irish counterparts yelling "Erin go bragh" (the Irish battle cry) whenever they charged.

All these explanations place the origin of the word gringo in the 19th century, which is a serious problem because the word was documented 50 years earlier in 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 in South American literature. However, a word known mainly by scholars is one thing, while one that enters the vernacular is another, so the theory is still viable, and awaits further documentation. If the word spread through the Mexican troops from hearing the song, the fact that they were mostly illiterate would make documentation on the Mexican side of the border hard to find.

Brazil and Portugal[edit]

In Brazilian and Portuguese popular culture, someone unintelligible is traditionally said to speak Greek.[19]

Absorption from Spanish is also reflected in that the word usage is not naturally widespread and only generally in regions exposed to tourism like Rio de Janeiro. There, the word means basically any foreigner. Generally it applies more to any English-speaking person, not necessarily based on race or skin color but on attitude and clothing. The more popularly-used terms for fair-skinned and blond people would be "alemão" (i.e., German), "russo" (Russian) or "gallego" (Galician).

The opposite of alemão/russo/galego among white people in Brazil is branco moreno, or white people of dark hair or darker complexions. Moreno is actually the opposite of the most formal term for people of fair complexion (including most East Asians and many Levantine Arabs, among others Middle Easterners and other ethnicities of light skin), pálido (IPA: [ˈpalidu], Portuguese: pale).

Moreno white people includes most Brazilians of pure or mostly European, Rromani, or Levantine descent. It also includes mixed-race people perceived as phenotypically closer to Caucasians than to Pardoscaboclos (Pardos, or Brown people. The majority of Brazilians are of some Amerindian descent, and some may have more Amerindian features than many people labeled as mestizo in nearby nations—since it actually describes strictly non-white people (and not those somewhere in-between). This broader definition of white people also includes light-skinned mulattoes of loosely coiled or straight hair and generally European features. Moreno can describe people of all races and ethnicities in Brazil, but most often refers to White Brazilians and Pardos. It is not politically correct to refer to an Afro-Brazilian by this term (because some may interpreted blackness being a minor deniable element of the person's characteristics—the stigma of being Black or partly Black in Brazil caused the phenomena of racially promoting: educated or affluent Afro-Brazilian historically "elevated" as Pardos, or very colloquially, morenos, and Pardos being seen as white people.

The most pejorative terms for white people in Brazil, both for locals and foreigners, even used by brancos morenos against fair-skinned White Brazilians, are branquelo (IPA: [bɾɐ̃ˈkɛlu], literally Portuguese: whitey, or also honky) and the even more disparaging leite azedo (IPA: [ˌlejtʃ(j) aˈzedu], Portuguese: rancid milk, in reference to the combination of an unusual light complexion, almost white as the milk, and the negative stereotype of the bad smell in Westerners — in most of Brazil, including White-majority states of Centro-Sul such as Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, the normative social habit is to take at least one bath per day year-round, and Westerners are said to generally be not used to this — still the term is so common that in some regions it does not carry more the same negative connotation it carried in the past, although without losing its disparaging meaning). Gringo, on the other hand, is almost absent of pejorative connotation outside politically nationalist circles.

In Southern Brazil, the word gringo means specifically any person (Brazilian national or otherwise) of Italian descent and does not necessarily have a negative connotation. Only in very particular contexts, gringo will mean a white American in Southern Brazil. In São Paulo state, sometimes the word gringo is used to refer to any person coming from a Spanish-speaking country, especially from neighbouring countries, Uruguay and Paraguay.

In Portugal the word is very rarely used and so is "Ianque" (Portuguese spelling of Yank). It is never used in a formal context. It specifically describes someone from the USA (as does "Ianque"), and is not related to any particular physical or racial features.[20] The most common slang terms used throughout the country are "Camóne" (from the English "come on") and "Bife" ("steak" in English, probably due to their skin colour after sun burns, for which "lagosta" is specifically used for). Probably the most used and correct expressions are "de fora" ("from abroad" in English) or simply "estrangeiro" ("foreigner" in English).

Other uses[edit]

In Mexican cuisine, a gringa is a flour tortilla with al pastor pork meat with cheese, heated on the comal and then served (not necessarily) with a salsa de chile (chilli sauce). Most commonly, it's thought that the dish was born in a Mexico City taquería when the owner served it to two women from the United States (known as gringas) that asked for a Mexican dish but disliked corn tortillas. The name comes from the feminine of gringo.

In the 1950s, the blue fifty Mexican peso bill was called an ojo de gringa ("gringa's eye").[21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Roger Axtell, Essential Do's and Taboos (Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), p. 164.
  2. ^ Diccionario de la lengua española, Royal Spanish Academy, 22nd. edition
  3. ^,+latina+e+italiana&hl=en&sa=X&ei=srvqUqnlMITNsQTNk4LACA&ved=0CEUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  4. ^ Beatriz Varela, “Ethnic Nicknames of Spanish Origin”, in Spanish Loadwords in the English Language, Félix Rodríguez González, ed., ISBN 3-11-014845-5, p. 143 text at Google Books; referring to Corominas 1954
  5. ^ Irving L. Allen, The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture, 1983, ISBN 0-231-05557-9, p. 129
  6. ^ William Sayers, "An Unnoticed Early Attestation of gringo ‘Foreigner’: Implications for Its Origin", in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies 86:3:323 (2009)
  7. ^ Griego at Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, Vol. III, Joan Corominas, José A. Pascual, Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1989, ISBN 84-249-1365-5
  8. ^ Urban Legends Reference Pages
  9. ^ Ask Yahoo: How did the term "gringo" originate?
  10. ^ Hebreu at Nuevo diccionario francés-español, Antonio de Capmany, Imprenta de Sancha, Madrid, 1817
  11. ^ Nuevo diccionario francés-español at Google Books, p. 28
  12. ^ Nuevo diccionario francés-español at Google Books, p. 448
  13. ^ Travels in Peru During the Years 1838–1842: On the Coast, in the Sierra, Across the Cordilleras and the Andes, into the Primeval Forests (1854), Chapter 5, footnote 29.
  14. ^ "Gringo" From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 28, 2008.
  15. ^
  16. ^ Audubon, John W. (1906). Audubon's Western Journal 1849-1850, p. 100. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company.
  17. ^
  18. ^ "The San Patricios: Mexico's Fighting Irish"
  19. ^ Portuguese Dictionary "Grego" From Priberam Portuguese Language On-Line Dictionary
  20. ^ Portuguese Dictionary "Ianque" From Priberam Portuguese Language On-Line Dictionary
  21. ^ See a picture at the Banco de México website.