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Gringo (/ˈɡrɪŋɡ/, Spanish: [ˈɡɾiŋɡo], Portuguese: [ˈɡɾĩɡu]) is a term, mainly used in Spanish-speaking countries, to refer to an English-speaking foreigner, especially an American person. The term is often used in a disparaging sense, but in and of itself is not derogatory.[1][2][3][4][5][6][7]

The word was originally used in Spain to denote any foreign, non-native speakers of Spanish.[8]


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."[9]

The word gringo was first recorded in Volume II of[10] 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.[11]

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’.[12][13][14][15][16]

The gringo entry in the Nuevo diccionario francés-español (New French–Spanish Dictionary, 1817), by Antonio de Capmany, records:[17]

. . . hablar en griego, en guirigay, en gringo.[18]

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

Gringo, griego: aplícase a lo que se dice o escribe sin entenderse.[19]

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”.[20]

In English[edit]

"Gringo" has been in use in the English language since the 19th century.[21] 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,[22] in which Audubon reports that his party were hooted and shouted at and called "Gringoes" while passing through the town of Cerro Gordo, Veracruz.[23]

Folk etymologies[edit]

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

It has been said that gringo originated in Mexico during the Mexican-American war because Americans would sing the song "Green Grow the Lilacs." As the word originated in Spain long before there was a Spanish-speaking Mexico, there is no truth to this urban legend. In fact, at one time, the word in Spain was often used to refer specifically to the Irish. And according to a 1787 dictionary, it often referred to someone who spoke Spanish poorly.[24][25]

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[26] 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)[27] 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.

Another version of the origin of the word is in the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920) When Francisco "Pancho" Villa attacks Columbus the US Army to Mexico in the Villa Expedition, so when the American Army asked to the people for Francisco Villa, the people answer "Green Go" ("Verde vete") because the green uniform that the American Army were wearing.

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.[28]

In Brazil, the word means basically any foreigner, and there are also other popularly-used terms for fair-skinned and blond people, like "alemão" (i.e., German) or "russo" (Russian). Gringo is almost absent of pejorative connotation outside political nationalist circles.

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.[29] 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). 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").[30]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "gringo". Cambridge Dictionaries Online. Cambridge University. Retrieved 20 February 201. "used in Latin American countries to refer to people from the US or other English-speaking countries" 
  2. ^ "gringo". definition of gringo. The Free Dictionary. Retrieved 20 February 2014. "Used as a disparaging term for a foreigner in Latin America, especially an American or English person." 
  3. ^ "gringo". Merriam-Webster Dictionary. Retrieved 20 February 2014. "a foreigner in Spain or Latin America especially when of English or American origin;" 
  4. ^ "Gringo". Retrieved 20 February 2014. "(in Latin America or Spain) a foreigner, especially one of U.S. or British descent." 
  5. ^ "gringo, ga". SM Diccionarios. Retrieved 20 February 2014. "Persona nacida en los Estados Unidos de América (país americano)" 
  6. ^ "gringo". Diccionario. El Mundo. Retrieved 20 February 2014. "adj. y s. amer. Persona nacida en Estados Unidos, en especial la de habla inglesa" 
  7. ^ "gringo, ga.". Diccionario de la lengua española. Real Academia Española. Retrieved 20 February 2014. "Extranjero, especialmente de habla inglesa, y en general hablante de una lengua que no sea la española; Am. Mer., Cuba, El Salv., Hond. y Nic. estadounidense." 
  8. ^ Diccionario de la lengua española, Royal Spanish Academy, 22nd. edition
  9. ^ Roger Axtell, Essential Do's and Taboos (Hoboken, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.), p. 164.
  10. ^,+latina+e+italiana&hl=en&sa=X&ei=srvqUqnlMITNsQTNk4LACA&ved=0CEUQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q&f=false
  11. ^ 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
  12. ^ Irving L. Allen, The Language of Ethnic Conflict: Social Organization and Lexical Culture, 1983, ISBN 0-231-05557-9, p. 129
  13. ^ William Sayers, "An Unnoticed Early Attestation of gringo ‘Foreigner’: Implications for Its Origin", in the Bulletin of Spanish Studies 86:3:323 (2009)
  14. ^ Griego at Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico, Vol. III, Joan Corominas, José A. Pascual, Editorial Gredos, Madrid, 1989, ISBN 84-249-1365-5
  15. ^ Urban Legends Reference Pages
  16. ^ Ask Yahoo: How did the term "gringo" originate?
  17. ^ Hebreu at Nuevo diccionario francés-español, Antonio de Capmany, Imprenta de Sancha, Madrid, 1817
  18. ^ Nuevo diccionario francés-español at Google Books, p. 28
  19. ^ Nuevo diccionario francés-español at Google Books, p. 448
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ "Gringo" From the Oxford English Dictionary. Retrieved November 28, 2008.
  22. ^
  23. ^ Audubon, John W. (1906). Audubon's Western Journal 1849-1850, p. 100. Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company.
  24. ^ Erichsen, Gerald. "Gringo". Retrieved 20 February 2014. 
  25. ^ "Etimologia de Gringo". Etimologias. Retrieved 20 February 2014. 
  26. ^
  27. ^ "The San Patricios: Mexico's Fighting Irish"
  28. ^ Portuguese Dictionary "Grego" From Priberam Portuguese Language On-Line Dictionary
  29. ^ Portuguese Dictionary "Ianque" From Priberam Portuguese Language On-Line Dictionary
  30. ^ See a picture at the Banco de México website.