Friday, February 20, 2004

On the word "gringo":

One rather far-fetched story says gringo was derived from the song, "Green Grow the Rushes, O" by Scottish poet Robert Burns, as it was sung by English sailors in Mexican seaports. Many of the explanations and interpretations of this word have used this "Green Grow the Rushes, O" theory or slight deviations of it. I am saying that all of this is bunk and not supported by any real evidence. An article in the University of Arizona historical quarterly "Arizona and the West," by Charles E. Ronan S.J., of the Department of History of Loyola University of Chicago, discredits that origin. It gives many examples of the use of the word gringo, but does not find any positive source from which it is sprung.

To quote from Father Ronan's article:

"The word gringo was mentioned in Spanish literature as early as the eighteenth century. In his famous Diccionario, compiled some time before 1750, Terreros y Pando, a Spanish historian states that gringo was a nickname given to foreigners in Malaga and Madrid who spoke Spanish with an accent, and that in Madrid the term had special reference to the Irish. The pertinent passage in the Diccionario reads:

"Gringo in Malaga, what they call foreigners who (have) a certain kind of accent which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity; in Madrid the case is the same, and for some reason, especially with respect to the Irish."

"Another instance of its early use is in Bustamante's 1841 edition of Francisco Javier Alegre's Historia de la Companis de Jesús en la Nueva España, in which he explains that the Spanish soldiers sent to Mexico in 1767 by Charles III were called gringos by the Mexican people.

"Between the late 1760's and the early 1830's, however, the word apparently was rarely used, for no mention of it during that period has been found.

"Beginning in the 1830s, there are numerous references to the word gringo in the New World travel accounts, in dictionaries, and in Spanish-American literature. For example, two early 19th century travelers, the German Johan Jakob von Tschudi and the Frenchman Arseve Isabelle, both testify to the use of the word. In his travels in Peru during the years 1838-1842, Tschudi recounts how the Peruvian women 'prefer marrying a Gringo to a Paisanito, or (native).' In this 'voyage,' Isabelle complains about the insulting names, such as gringo, that travelers were called in South America. As for dictionaries, two, Diccionario (1846) of Vicente Salva y Perez, list gringo as a nickname given a foreigner who speaks an unintelligible language. Interestingly enough, the word is not incorporated into Diccionario de la Real Academia until the 1869 edition. In Spanish literature, gringo appears in Manuel Breton de los Herreros Elena, a drama presented for the first time in Madrid in 1834. Que es eso? Contais en gringo? (What is this / Are you using gringo language?)

Scholars are not in agreement about the correct use and origin of this word. According to one opinion, gringo is a corrected form of griego as used in the ancient Spanish expression hablar en griego, that is, to speak an unintelligible language or "to speak Greek."

What I think is very evident from all of this is that this word was used long ago before any English-speaking calvary soldiers were riding and singing near the Mexican border as has been suggested by some in previous reports.

Please let us lay this debate to rest and conclude that this word was in dictionaries and daily use in the Spanish language in the 18th and 19th centuries. It will continue to be interpreted by all of us in many different ways.

J.H. Coffman

Scottsdale, AZ

Mr. Coffman conclusively proves the word "gringo" was used in Spain a hundred years before the Mexican War. Here's the American Heritage Dictionary:


NOUN: Inflected forms: pl. grin·gos
Offensive Slang Used as a disparaging term for a foreigner in Latin America, especially an American or English person.
ETYMOLOGY: Spanish, foreign, foreign language, gibberish, probably alteration of griego, Greek, from Latin Graecus. See Greek.
WORD HISTORY: In Latin America the word gringo is an offensive term for a foreigner, particularly an American or English person. But the word existed in Spanish before this particular sense came into being. In fact, gringo may be an alteration of the word griego, the Spanish development of Latin Graecus, “Greek.” Griego first meant “Greek, Grecian,” as an adjective and “Greek, Greek language,” as a noun. The saying “It's Greek to me” exists in Spanish, as it does in English, and helps us understand why griego came to mean “unintelligible language” and perhaps, by further extension of this idea, “stranger, that is, one who speaks a foreign language.” The altered form gringo lost touch with Greek but has the senses “unintelligible language,” “foreigner, especially an English person,” and in Latin America, “North American or Britisher.” Its first recorded English use (1849) is in John Woodhouse Audubon's Western Journal: “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes.’”

Here's Urban Legends Reference Pages ( on the same subject:

Claim: The word gringo comes from Mexicans' overhearing American soldiers sing the song "Green Grow the Lilacs" during the Mexican-American War.
Status: False.

Origins: This rather improbable saga of the origins of the word "gringo" has it that the term began during the Mexican-American War (1846-48), when Mexicans supposedly overheard American soldiers continually singing either "Green Grow the Lilacs" or "Green grow the rushes, O" (a song based upon a Robert Burns poem). The Spanish-speaking Mexicans began referring derisively to the Americans as "green grows" (rendered phonetically in Spanish as gringos), which soon became a pejorative Spanish-language term for "foreigners" (particularly Americans).

Other versions of this etymological legend attribute the singing to Irish Legion volunteers serving in Simon Bolivar's army during Venezuela's war for independence from Spain in the early 19th century, "cowboys in south Texas," or American troops attempting to track down Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916-17.

All of these charming explanations have chronology working against them. Although the first recorded use of "gringo" in English dates from 1849 (when John Woodhouse Audubon, the son of the famous nature artist, wrote that "We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called 'Gringoes'"), the word was known in Spanish well before the Mexican-American War. According to Rawson, the Diccionario Castellano of 1787 noted that in Malaga "foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Spanish easily and naturally" were referred to as gringos, and the same term was used in Madrid, particularly for the Irish.

The true origin of gringo is most likely that it came from griego, the Spanish word for "Greek." In Spanish, as in English, something difficult or impossible to understand is referred to as being Greek: We say "It's Greek to me," just as in Spanish an incomprehensible person is said to hablar en griego (i.e., "speak in Greek"). The English version of the proverb shows up in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1599), when Casca, one of the conspirators against Caesar, proclaims:

Nay, an I tell you that, I'll ne'er look you i' the face again; but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
The same phrase was also used (at about the same time) by another Elizabethan playwright, Thomas Dekker, but its origins are much older: it comes from the Medieval Latin proverb Graecum est; non potest legi (i.e., "It is Greek; it cannot be read").

It is certainly possible (and even likely) that the Mexican-American War precipitated the introduction of the Spanish word gringo into the English language, but the word itself antedates that conflict by at least sixty years and had nothing to do with singing soldiers, American or otherwise.

That's enough for me.

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