Why Do We Say That?

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When President Bush visited Chile last November, a state dinner at the presidential palace in Santiago was canceled at the last minute because of the U.S. Secret Service’s insistence that guests pass through metal detectors. This is standard practice in the United States, but Chileans regarded the weapons check as humiliating. “Can you imagine someone like the chief justice of the Supreme Court having to submit to an inspection by gringo security agents in order to get into our own seat of government?” someone on the guest list asked The New York Times.

The opprobrious gringo first rang in American ears during the Mexican War. As John Woodhouse Audubon, son of the ornithological artist, noted in his journal on June 13, 1849, “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes.’”

While appreciating that gringo wasn’t a compliment, Americans were not sure of its exact meaning. Nathaniel Parker Willis, a popular writer of the day, made a pass at it when he told the readers of Hurry-graphs (1851) about a book that had been published the previous year: “We shall give next week some extracts from this delightful book, ‘Los Gringos’ (which we believe is a Spanish phrase, partially of reproach, and means foreigners who are in search of adventure).” As time went on, the message started to come through more clearly. Thus Harper’s Magazine defined gringo several decades later, in 1884, as “a term of ridicule and obloquy applied to Americans throughout all Mexico.”

Americans wondered about the origin of the epithet and managed to come up with some remarkably picturesque explanations. Perhaps the most popular theory for many years was that gringo was how Mexicans heard the phrase “green grow” in a Yankee song, “Green Grow the Rushes, O.”

Putting the kibosh on the fanciful theories of amateur etymologists was the discovery that gringo had existed in Spanish for many years before the Mexican War. The earliest-known example is from the Diccionario Castellano (1786–93), by P. Esteban de Terreros y Pando. Gringo , according to the Diccionario , was applied in Málaga and Madrid to “foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Spanish easily and naturally.”

The term almost certainly derives from griego, Spanish for Greek. In its (rather late) first appearance in the Real Academia Española’s official Spanish dictionary, in 1869, “to speak in gringo ” is recorded as meaning “to speak in Greek,” or to speak unintelligibly, just as we may say in English when bewildered by what someone is saying, “It’s Greek to me.”

In Spain, gringo does not have the same offensive connotations as in the New World, where it is, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “a contemptuous name for an Englishman or an Anglo-American.” But as not infrequently happens with disparaging terms, the objects of the epithet have begun to glory in it. Gay and queer are examples of words that have followed this trajectory. So now we have the Gringo Gazette (“Baja’s English Language Newspaper”); Clark’s Gringo Foods, of San Angelo, Texas; Gringo Skateboards, of Dallas; Green Mountain Gringo Salsa and Tortilla Strips, from Hume Specialties, of Chester, Vermont; and so on. Even Spanish speakers are easing up. Thus the family with whom my daughter stayed for a semester in Costa Rica occasionally referred to her affectionately as la gringuita .

In the end the career of gringo is another demonstration of the truism that the meanings of words depend a great deal on context—on exactly who says what to whom, when, how, and in what tone of voice. Words are like bottles. Their shapes may remain the same, while their contents vary from very bitter to very sweet.

—Hugh Rawson