Gringo Definition: Origin and Meaning

As soon as you step foot in Latin America, there’s a good chance that your nationality will take second place to your new classification: gringo. As a foreigner, the locals will often tag you with this broad and flexible label (gringo, male; gringa, female; gringos, plural), even if your physical appearance is not so different from theirs.

Despite the widespread usage of the term, its actual definition, particularly its origin, is the subject of some debate…

Gringo Origins

There are three main theories as to the origin of the word gringo. The popularity of each etymological theory does not necessarily reflect its plausibility:

green-coats-gringo-definition

Battle of Churubusco, 1847 - U.S.–Mexican War

Green coats / Green, go!

This theory stems from the U.S.–Mexican War of 1846 to 1848. Here, gringo derives from the Mexican mispronunciation of “green coats” or a contraction of “green, go!” – both of which refer to the green coats worn by U.S. soldiers.

I have heard this etymological explanation more than any other during my travels in South America, with “green, go!” being the most common. Despite being a popular theory, it is almost certainly wrong. U.S. soldiers did not wear green coats during this period, blue being the standard dress colour. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, blue service dress was replaced by olive drab and khaki uniforms in 1902, almost 50 years after the U.S.–Mexican War.

Green Grow the Lilacs

A less popular but slightly more plausible theory is that of the Irish folk song, “Green Grow the Lilacs.” The song became popular in the U.S.A. during the mid-19th century and was sung by troops during the U.S.–Mexican War, or so the theory goes. The Mexicans, after repeat hearings, took the song’s standout phrase and used it to refer to the foreign soldiers. There are a number of different versions; here are the first two verses as listed on Contemplator.com:

Green grow the lilacs, all sparkling with dew
I’m lonely, my darling, since parting with you;
But by our next meeting I’ll hope to prove true
And change the green lilacs to the Red, White and Blue.

Green grow the lilacs reminding me of
The ones that I brought you with all of my love,
The gates of my country will open for you
And change the green lilacs to the Red, White and Blue.

Green grow, gringo… Plausible, certainly, but it doesn’t carry as much weight as the final, more scholarly theory.

Griego

The third theory pretty much scuppers the previous two. Beatriz Varela, in her essay entitled “Ethnic Nicknames of Spanish Origin in American English,” (Spanish Loanwords in the English Language; ed. Félix Rodríguez González; 1996) states:

The decisive answer to these etymologies, which unmistakably increased the usage of gringo, is the undeniable fact that this word is documented in Spain since 1786 in the Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes y sus correspondientes en las 3 lenguas francesa, latina e italiana.

This dictionary, written by Esteban de Terreros y Pando, has the following definition: “In Malaga, gringo is what they call foreigners who have a certain kind of accent which prevents their speaking Spanish with ease and spontaneity.” Sound familiar?

The word itself is thought to derive from griego, the Spanish word for “Greek.” Spaniards used the expression “hablar en griego” (“to speak in Greek”) to refer to incomprehensible language (similar to the English expression, “It’s all Greek to me”).

The word was also in use in mid-19th century Peru. In 1854, Johann Jakob von Tschudi published Travels in Peru, in which he records the use of the word gringo in Lima:

meaning-gringo-peru

In a footnote, he explains that gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans and that “It is probably derived from Griego (Greek).” You can download Travels in Peru free of charge from the Internet Archive or buy a hard copy from Amazon (various editions).

Gringo Meaning and Usage

There is still a tendency to define gringo as a hostile term. A quick look online, for example, reveals a number of negative portrayals. Merriam-Webster describes it as “often disparaging” and Dictionary.com as “usually disparaging.” The Free Dictionary says it is “Used as a disparaging term for a foreigner in Latin America, especially an American or English person.”

In general, the above definitions are not accurate – gringo is simply used to refer to a foreigner. There are exceptions, largely depending upon where you are, who you are and how it is said. Obviously, if a Latin American stares at you and growls “grrriiingo” before spitting on the floor, it might be a good time to leave.

Gringo in Peru

gringo Fitted T-Shirt

Peru serves as a good example of the incredibly broad usage of gringo. Peruvians use gringo to refer to fair-skinned people in general – they even use it among themselves. One Peruvian will often describe another light-skinned Peruvian as a gringo or gringa (generally in a friendly manner).

Peruvians tend to use gringo as a label for foreigners in general, regardless of nationality (although a fair-skinned foreigner will perhaps hear it more often). That said, some Peruvians believe that “true” gringos are from the U.S.A. (due, presumably, to the U.S.–Mexican War word-origin theories). I have heard Peruvians correct each other over usage; for example, “He’s not a gringo, he’s from England.”

Unless said in a rude of threatening way, you shouldn’t be offended if a Peruvian calls you gringo or gringa – it is not a disparaging term. The same applies throughout South America.

  • If you have any other gringo theories, opinions or experiences, feel free to leave a comment below.

  11 comments for “Gringo Definition: Origin and Meaning

  1. April 14, 2011 at 9:37 am

    Awesome post! I’ve often wondered where it came from and this covers all the angles. I get annoyed with the first answer (green go). That is absurd to me and insulting that someone would think I could be dumb enough to accept that answer.

    That said, this is great! Griego! I like it!

  2. April 14, 2011 at 10:08 am

    Thanks David. I’ve always found the “green go” explanation a bit irritating, too. Just doesn’t add up. On the surface, the griego origin is perhaps not as colourful, but it’s much more interesting overall.

    Cheers.

  3. April 19, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    Great post! I tend to believe the “griego” theory. I also don’t mind being called “gringa” at all. (Thanks for your comment on my blog on this same topic.)

  4. April 19, 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thanks Tracy. Latinaish… I like it! Interesting blog you have there.

  5. Roman
    May 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm

    Hi to everyone!
    Adding up my few words to the discussion about the term “ gringo “ I have to admit that the term itself doesn`t bother me at all except the way it is being used by some people in South America.
    I live in Cusco, Peru and frequently travel to neighboring countries. I`m of East European origin; just a perfect gringo example! What I don`t like is when people here pronounce the word GRINGO in my presence without any need or reason.
    To me it just means lack of respect…
    My response to that often is: ¿que quieres de mi, cholo?, or what do you want from me, peasant?

    Greetings.

  6. May 9, 2011 at 8:33 am

    Hi Roman, thanks for the comment.

    People sometimes refer to me as “gringo” indirectly, as if I wasn’t standing in the same room and within earshot. It doesn’t bother me – I think it’s such a habitual expression for “foreigner” that they don’t really think anything of it. Either that or they assume that the “gringo” doesn’t understand one word of Spanish (a common assumption!).

    Cheers.

  7. jonathan
    October 29, 2011 at 9:19 am

    I’ve lived in Latin America for three years and I think that characterizing Peruvians, or any Latin Americans for that matter, as people that growl and spit on the floor and are so dangerous that one should leave at the sight of this is slightly offensive and maybe even ignorant. Cheers!

    • October 29, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Hi Jonathan,

      I think you might be reading too much into this particular sentence:

      “Obviously, if a Latin American stares at you and growls “grrriiingo” before spitting on the floor, it might be a good time to leave.”

      I was using this to exemplify the previous statement that “gringo” is only offensive if used in an offensive or aggressive context. My example, I must admit, was exaggerated, but I was playing on stereotypical Hollywood Westerns in which a growled “gringo” normally leads to a shoot-out (which for most would be a good time to leave).

      Anyway, I’m sorry that you found the statement offensive and ignorant. After five or so years in South America, I’ve yet to be called a gringo in an offensive manner (and I’ve never heard a Peruvian growl, come to think of it). Was I characterizing all Latin Americans as growling, spitting and dangerous? No, I was not — that would be ridiculous.

      Thanks!

  8. Carlos Martinez
    November 10, 2011 at 10:05 am

    I grew up in Mexico up until I graduated from elementary school or 6th grade. My history teacher back then, commented that gringo became a common word refering to the American individual of the USA. According to him or Mexican history books, the word originated from the phrase “green, go” which Mexicans would yell out to American soldiers in a way to tell the Americans to leave Mexico during the USA-USM war. Whether American soldiers wore green jackets or uniforms I don’t know but he did mention it came from the color of their uniforms. Now, looking at the illustration above, maybe Mexican soldiers wore the green uniforms and the American soldiers were the ones yelling out to Mexican soldiers “green, go” in an effort to have Mexican soldiers leave a certain area during the war. As most people would know, an “e” or the double “e” in the word green is the sound for the vowel “i” in the spanish alphabet. Put the two words together, “greengo” which sounds and spells out in spanish as “gringo”. Other central and south America countries have adopted the same descriptive word through the decades to identify the white or light skinned or anglo individuals originating from the USA only.

    This is the story I know and I’m sticking to it.

  9. egghead
    December 27, 2011 at 4:55 am

    From griego to gringo is just poor scholarship. It seems far more likely that it is a snide referral to the most popular camp song in America during the late 1840’s, Green Grow the Rushes(or Lilacs) Oh! Campfire songs were almost the only evening entertainment, and that song has an interminable number of choruses ending with “green grow the lilacs oh!” The snide reference to “green grows”promptly became “gringos,” a term of derision for Norte americanos.

  10. George
    October 23, 2012 at 9:38 am

    As a ‘Griego’ (actually Greek-American/Griego-Americano), I often heard the ‘griego’ theory growing up with the additional narrative that Greeks, who, coming from a land surrounded by the sea and dotted by countless islands and bays, were experts at seamanship, and were often working on Spanish (and other European countries’) ships during the exploration and colonial period as both officers and common seamen (‘Juan de Fuca’ or – in Greek – Ioannis Phocas, was the prime example of a famous maritime pilot). Thus, goes the story, the not insignificant number of these people speaking a very different, non-Latin derived language, which must have been incomprehensible to most, gave rise to the term, ‘griego’, and later ‘gringo’, to anyone who’s language was a mystery to the hearer.

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