Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Gringo Origins

Gringos in their natural habitat.
Have you ever wondered where the word gringo originated?

I sure have.

After devoting no small measure of my considerable mental resources to solving what could possibly be one of the greatest mysteries of our time, I dug up a few interesting theories.

The Mexican-American War Theory

For those of you who never paid attention in history class, here’s what the Mexican-American War was in a nutshell: the United States asked [1] Mexico if it could borrow [2] some [3] of Mexico’s land so that some of its citizens [4] could have a place to live. After Mexico said, “No way, José!” and spilled American blood on American soil [5] the United States was pissed and had no choice but to borrow the land through force.

There are actually two digressing theories based on the Mexican-American War paradigm:

To be fair, we asked nicely first.
1. The Uniform Argument—Some say that the invading American troops wore green uniforms and the defending Mexican soldiers would yell “green-go” as to tell the U.S. troops to go home. Although this might seem logical, the United States Army did not adopt green uniforms until World War I. So basically, this argument stinks. Forget it.

2. The Immigrant Argument—During the war, several hundred recently immigrated Irish, German and other Catholic Americans were sent to fight against Mexico. Many of these immigrants came to question why they were fighting against a Catholic country for a protestant one and when combined with their growing resentment for mistreatment by their Anglo-Protestant officers, they deserted to join forces with Mexico, calling themselves St. Patrick’s Battalion. Proponents of this idea claim that the Irish soldiers frequently sang “Green Grows the Rushes, Oh!”, an old folk song. Mexican soldiers, after continuously hearing “Green Grow” reported back to their superiors that this might be what Americans called themselves.

Aristotle, the first Gringo?
The Greek Theory

Many scholars agree that gringo is a variant of griego, the Spanish word for Greek. Alternatively, it has also been argued that griego could be a variant of the Spanish Romani (pre-Castilian Spanish language spoken during Roman times) word peregringo, which means ‘wayfarer’ or ‘stranger.’

Further supporting this theory, in the 1840s, Swiss natural scientist Johann Jakon von Tschudi, while traveling through Peru, wrote: Gringo is a nickname applied to Europeans. It is probably derived from Griego (Greek). 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."

Regardless of which theory is correct, it has been well-documented that the word gringo was first widely used by Mexican soldiers to disparage American troops during the Mexican-American War, suggesting that this conflict gave birth to the common usage of the word as a racial epithet towards those hailing from the United States.

Where else did Mexico expect us to build
Disneyland and Caesar's Palace?
Since the 19th century, gringo has become a universal word in most Central and South American countries for referring to people from the United States (or any English-speaking country). Although the word is often meant to be derogative, it is also commonly used in a neutral or even affectionate manner in referring to foreigners of North American/European descent.

Well, there you have it, folks—the mystery is more or less solved.

If not, at least you have something cool to talk about at your next cocktail party.

[1] demanded
[2] steal
[3] nearly half
[4] white, Anglo-Saxon, protestants
[5] land that Americans had ‘borrowed’ a few years earlier.


  1. Lol, how long did it take you to come up with this entry? :p

    Your interview is up today if you haven't seen it yet :)

  2. haha it didn't take me too long. I was a history major in college, so this stuff is like finger painting to me :)

  3. Hi Mike, I´ve been reading your blog, and it´s great, I´m Colombian, but right now I´m living in Barcelona, Spain, jejejej. I´m happy to read your opinions about my country, about the bad and the good things that you´ve found in Colombia, I hope you enjoy your stay there, and thank you for what you´re doing for the colombian kids! Big hug!

  4. Glad you like the blog Lilu! I appreciate your readership!