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¡Eh, gringo! The origin of South America’s most common word

Published September 27, 2014 by Nick Dall

If you’ve spent more than half an hour in South America you will have been called a gringo. Most times the word is used affectionately. Sometimes it relays astonishment. And in a few cases it’s a derogatory term. But where does it actually come from?
Perhaps the most poetic possible origin dates back to the 19th century Mexican-American War. Back then it was normal for troops to sing as they marched, and one such song was ‘Green Grow the Lilacs’. The Mexican peasants heard it as “green-go” and the rest, as they say, is history. Except, this time, it isn’t…
Romantic though it may be, this explanation is almost certainly erroneous as the word was actually listed in a dictionary published in Spain in 1787, some sixty years before the Mexican-American War began. Here’s a translation of the definition:
Gringos is what, in Malaga, they call foreigners who have a certain type of accent that prevents them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they give the same name, in particular, to the Irish.
Most mainstream scholars agree that gringo was probably derived from griego, the Spanish word for ‘Greek’. In English we have a similar phrase, which even made it into Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, which was written in 1599:
Nay, an I tell you that, I'll ne'er look you i' the face again; but those that understood him smiled at one another and shook their heads; but for mine own part, it was Greek to me.
If this isn’t proof enough, then the following quote from Johann Jakob von Tschudi who lived in Lima in the 1840s should seal the deal:
Gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans. It is probably derived from ‘griego’. The Germans say of anything incomprehensible, “That sounds like Spanish”, — and, in like manner, the Spaniards say of anything they do not understand, “That is Greek”.
Now you know, gringo!

Street Tango
Street tango in Buenos Aires. There are definitely some gringos in the crowd.


* The main image shows a scene from the film Mariachi Gringo.