A Balloon In Cactus
Where Did the Word Gringo
Come From, Anyway?
By Marge Van Ostrand
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 didnt
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,
Now dont get mad at me, all you
blondes out there who speak gibberish, I didnt write the dictionary.
Anyway, you know me. If its simple, Im 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 18th 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 gringos
early use is in Bustamantes 1841 edition of Francisco Javier Alegres
Historia de la Compañia de Jesus 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 doesnt tell us why.
Apparently, however, during the late 1760s
and the early 1830s, 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 wasnt 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
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. Theres 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.