October 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 5
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
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
In Spain, gringo does not have the same offensive connotations as in the New World, where it is, as the
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.