expatriates leave their homes in Mexico to visit their places of birth, they sometimes
playfully refer to their original country as "Gringolandia."
wondered, did the word "gringo" come from anyway? Why, for example, are we not
called "Yankees" by the Mexicans, as we are in other countries? One of the main
differences appears to be that a smile accompanies the former, while a scowl accompanies
Why do signs in other countries say "Yankee Go Home," but
never do we see signs that say "Gringo, go home?"
You may be wondering
why I didn't simply look "gringo" up in a Spanish-English dictionary, since I
was so determined to find its definition. Well, I did, and the word was defined
as "one who speaks gibberish," and "blonde," neither of which made much sense
in the common usage of the word unless you are writing a story about a gibberish-talking
fair-haired woman, right?
Now don't get mad at me, all you blondes out
there who speak gibberish, I didn't write the dictionary.
know me. If it's simple, I'm not interested. Confusion, chaos and complication
are my middle names, so I began to search through dusty etymological tomes for
word "gringo" was mentioned in Spanish literature as early as the eighteenth century.
In his famous Diccionario, compiled prior to 1750, Terreros y Pando, a Spanish
historian notes that "gringo" was a nickname given to foreigners in Malaga and
Madrid who spoke Spanish with an accent. Maybe it sounded like gibberish.
One story says the word "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. This is a crock of abono, and not supported by any real evidence.
Charles E. Ronan S.J., of the Department of History of Loyola University
of Chicago, discredits that alleged origin in his article, "Arizona and the West."
He gives many examples of the use of "gringo," but does not support any known
theories of origin.
An example of "gringo's" 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. Fine, but
that doesn't tell us why.
Apparently, however, during the late 1760's
and the early 1830's, the word was not even used, since no mention of it during
that period has been found. Perhaps the gringos had left Mexico, and there wasn't
any reason to use the word.
Skipping right along to 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 Peruvian women "prefer marrying a gringo
to a paisanito."
In his diaries, Isabelle complains about insulting names
that travelers were called, such as "gringo." As for dictionaries, Diccionario
(1846) of Vicente Salva y Perez, list "gringo" as a nickname given a foreigner
who speaks an unintelligible language. This doubtless refers to people from the
land of Gibber.
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
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." There's that gibberish thing
Evident from all of this is that "gringo" was used long ago before
any English-speaking cavalry soldiers were riding near the Mexican border, as
has been suggested in yet other opinions.
Like the committee which set
out to design a horse and ended up with a camel, the more people involved in theorizing
the origin of "gringo," the more opinions. I am prepared to add mine as follows:
Where did "gringo" come from? If any of you readers are familiar with the
paintings of scowling foreigners who hung out in Mexico a couple of hundred years
ago, the gentle Mexican people probably took one look, decided the strangers should
smile and depart, and cautioned them to "Grin. Go."
7, 2003 column
© Maggie Van Ostrand
Balloon In Cactus"
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