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 Texas : Features : Humor : Column - "A Balloon In Cactus"

WHERE DID THE WORD 'GRINGO' COME FROM ANYWAY?

by Maggie Van Ostrand
Maggie Van Ostrand

When expatriates leave their homes in Mexico to visit their places of birth, they sometimes playfully refer to their original country as "Gringolandia."

Where, I 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 the latter.

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.

Anyway, you 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 an answer.


The 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 language?)

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 again.

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."

September 7, 2003 column
© Maggie Van Ostrand
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