It seems like a lot of people get upset by being called
this colloquial name for a person of European descent, yet no one has
been able to prove definitively the source of this word.
According to Yahoo, they "had always assumed that it was simply a
Spanish word meaning "a pesky European settler," but once we looked
into the matter, it turned out that things weren't quite so cut and
After entering the phrase "gringo origin" into the Yahoo! search box
and clicking on some of the web page matches, we uncovered a
controversy over the word's history.
It seems that many amateur etymologists believe the term comes from a
song sung by American frontiersmen ("Green Grow the Rushes" or
possibly "Green Grow the Lilacs") during the Mexican-American War.
You can find details of this theory at a page hosted by Clan
Sinclair, along with the lyrics to both songs.
A second theory postulates that American troops, during that same
war, wore green uniforms and were taunted with cries of "Green go!"
Frankly, we found that one hard to swallow. Thankfully, most of the
sites we consulted viewed this idea with a healthy dose of
One such site, a question-and-answer column called The Word
Detective, offers a more compelling explanation of "gringo" and its
origin. The detective says, "The most likely source of 'gringo' is
the Spanish word 'gringo' itself, which means 'foreigner'
or 'unintelligible gibberish.' The root of 'gringo,' in turn, is
thought to have been 'griego,' Spanish for 'Greek,' often applied as
slang to any foreigner."
Further research led us to conclude that this last theory is the most
likely. The Word Wizard concurs wholeheartedly with the Word
Detective, offering "griego" as the immediate root of "gringo."
Finally, we located a comprehensive article from Honduras This Week
that outlines the long history of the term predating the Mexican-
American conflict. As far as we're concerned, it firmly places the
far-fetched theories of overheard singing and anti-American
sloganeering into the category of "urban myth," where they surely
That article from HONDURAS THIS WEEK is as follows:
ORIGIN OF THE WORD GRINGO
Over a period of many years, I have read in this paper letters to the
editor that have addressed the subject of the use of the word gringo
as used by Latin Americans to describe North Americans. I would like
to add what I believe to be an accurate explanation of the origin of
Almost all countries have their nicknames for foreigners. Just as we
from the United States sometimes call Canadians "Canucks" and we are
called "Yanks" by them.
If an American who crosses the line into Mexico from Arizona to
Nogales, Agua Prieta or any other border town will listen closely he
will occasionally hear the word gringo and while he may not realize
it, quite often, it is to the visitor himself that the word is being
In former years, the term gringo was often used by the Mexicans in a
derogatory sense as applied to Americans or other English-speaking
persons. But as turismo brought more free spending Americans to the
border towns, the word became more of a friendly term for an American.
During the several years that I have traveled and worked in Mexico
and Central America, I have heard the word gringo many times,
occasionally applied to myself. Even before living in Latin American
countries, I had found the term in books of travel and adventure and
had assumed it was referring to citizens of the United States only,
and in a derogatory manner.
However, after traveling a few years in Mexico and Central America, I
found that it also applied to some other foreigners, particularly the
English, and sometimes to the French, Germans and Italians. The
Spaniards were sometimes called Gachupines.
While the word gringo did not necessarily have a slurring
implication, yet I found that it was sometimes used in a derogatory
sense, as in ¡Que gringo tan bruto! Translated roughly into "What a
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
"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
"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.
Whatever the source, in Costa Rica it is not a derogatory term. Nor
is it rude to be called one or to call some one a Gringo. We call
Costarricense Ticos or Ticas
They call us Gringos as I refer to
myself as a Gringo and at the local gym I am known as the Big
So I hope the terminology problem can be laid to rest