What Does Gringo Mean Anyways?

July 12, 2017

San Miguel de Allende, Mexico
There seems to be a lot of confusion about the word gringo /a. If you are curious about the meaning or the origin of the word gringo/a this post is for you! 
Before we get into the myths and origins of gringo/a let’s visit some current definitions. Our first definition is coming from Urban Dictionary a more up to date dictionary when referring to slang or cultural words. 
 Gringo Definition 2

… and now a definition from Merriam-Webster.

Gringo Definition

From my knowledge and my personal experiences in Latin America gringo/a is broadly used to refer to a group of U.S. citizens. I’ve also heard it used as a term to call Europeans or basically anyone who looks like they could be American or European (aka white people). The term is also used as a name to describe people who don’t speak Spanish.

This might surprise you, but gringo/a can also be used to refer to Hispanics who speak very little or no Spanish at all or for those who are not in touch with their Latino roots, or for any person who is ignorant of Latin American culture or history.  Source: NPR Code Switch

Wow, so a lot of people are considered to be gringo/as, so where does this word even come from?


Myths and Theories

The origin of the word gringo is often disputed and holds a handful of different myths and theories about where the term actually started. Let’s talk about them…


Green Go Home

One of the most popular stories — and probably the story you heard in high school Spanish class has ties to the Mexican-American War that lasted from 1846-1848. The American regiment wore green uniforms which created a response from the Mexicans of “green go home” which morphed into gringo.


Green Grow the Lilacs
Another theory of the origin of the word gringo can thank the Mexican-American war. It is said that Mexican Americans were marching through Mexican territory singing the song “Green Grow the Lilacs” or “Green Grow the Rushes. The claim is that the Mexicans only heard the first two words and starting naming foreigners or specifically Americans it. 

While these are the most popular theories surrounding the origin of the word gringo there is no evidence that this is the evidence or if these songs were even sung.


It’s all Greek (Griego) to me
There is a Latin Proverb that you have probably heard of before, referring to something unintelligible; Graecum eat; no potest legi (It is Greek; it cannot be read) or as we know it “It’s all Greek to me”. Well, the Spanish version of this proverb was hablar en griego, meaning literally to talk in Greek, or to not understand what someone is saying. They gave this name to foreigners in Malaga (a port city in Southern Spain) and to the Irish in Madrid. Gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego. 

The 1786 Castilian Dictionary traces the use of the word back to 1700’s Spain. Spaniards used the word for people who could not speak Spanish or spoke Spanish with a heavy accent.



So the common thread between all these possible origins is that the gringo has historically been used to refer to a foreigner. Whether it is a traveler, a person whose language is unintelligible or a person with foreign roots. Gringo/a denotes the idea of otherness.

If you were not born in Latin America you are most likely a gringo/a, whether you like it or not. As an expat from the USA living in Mexico, I have come to accept the term, even reclaiming it in a way – hence the blog name. Accepting gringo/a for its literal meaning can be an easy task, but the word gringo/a has another uglier side, which can be much more a challenge to accept.

Someone might call you gringo/a behind your back, under their breath, accompanied by other not so nice words “pinche gringo/a” but to me, it is not worth getting upset over something I personally have no control over.  If someone is using gringo/a in a pejorative manner, telling them you don’t like it will not likely change anything. Just use that as an opportunity to prove them wrong.

Gringo: theories, origins, and myths

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