What is the Meaning of Gringo? The History and Origin of the Term
Today’s gringo meaning can get a little complicated. You’ve probably heard this word at least once or twice, but what does it mean? If you get called a gringo, should you be offended?
There isn’t a simple yes or no answer. But with just a little bit of history and explanation, this word won’t seem so foreign anymore!
History and Origin of the Term Gringo
Taking a look back at the origin of gringo makes it easier to understand this versatile word’s many meanings.
“Green Go Home”
There is a popular story that gringo meaning came from the Mexican-American War during 1846 to 1848. The story goes that the U.S. military wore green coats when they were marching through Mexican territory. In response, the Mexicans would say, “Green go home!” These words meshed together and the word gringo was born.
There is another folk story that also details gringo’s origins coming from the Mexican-American War. However, in this story, the American soldiers sang songs instead of wearing green. The song began with the words “green grow,” like the song “Green Grow the Lilacs.” According to this story, the Mexicans merged the beginning of the song together to form gringo.
While these two origin stories seem possible, they’re probably not the real origin of gringo. The word gringo was published in a Spanish dictionary in 1787, many years before the Mexican-American War.
Griego — A More Likely History
So then, where did the term gringo come from?
Most scholars agree that the word gringo probably originated from the Spanish word for “Greek”: griego.
Spaniards originally used the figurative expression, está hablando griego, (“he is speaking Greek”) when someone said something incomprehensible or who spoke Spanish with a heavy accent. Spaniards then simplified the phrase down to just this one word, griego, which later morphed into gringo.
Hence, gringo originally came from the word griego.
The Meaning of Gringo
Gringo may be only one word, but it has lots of meanings! There is a different gringo meaning for almost every country.
Gringo meaning also changes depending on its ending.
Take a look below!
El gringo — A Man
La gringa — A Woman
Los gringos — A group of gringos (plural)
Is Gringo an Insult?
If you’re from the U.S., chances are you’ve been taught that gringo is an insult. You may have even heard gringo used online or on TV in a derogatory manner or to make fun of someone. However, this is mostly an exaggeration. More often than not, gringo is simply used to describe foreigners in a neutral way.
Foreigner is the most popular gringo meaning. It’s used whether you’re talking about a traveler, a person whose language is unintelligible, or a person of foreign birth. In essence, gringo denotes the idea of “otherness.”
Gringo isn’t just used for Americans! While it is often used to talk about U.S. citizens, Europeans get called this term as well. Even Hispanics are sometimes called gringo if they are from a different country or don’t speak Spanish.
The less common gringo meaning is an insult. For example, if you’re acting inappropriately or rudely in a Hispanic country you might get called gringo as a result.
Ultimately, however, this usage is less common. More likely than not, if someone calls you a gringo they’re not actually trying to insult you!
Gringo is the easiest way to say foreigner in Spanish. Imagine having to say extranjero (foreigner), or even worse, estadounidense (U.S. citizen) anytime you wanted to talk about a traveler! Gringo is much quicker and easier to say.
Gringo Meanings Around the World
You don’t have to live in Latin America to hear the word gringo. As hispanic populations continue to grow, their term gringo is spreading as well. But just as every country and community has its own culture, gringo meaning can vary by place.
Here is a list of countries showing just a few of the many gringo meanings.
Mexico often uses gringo to describe something from the United States. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a person! For example, a Mexican might call McDonald’s a gringo restaurant. This means that gringo can be used as both a noun and an adjective!
Mexicans also use the term gabacho to describe foreigners. It can be used interchangeably with gringo.
Gringa has an additional meaning in Mexico. It is also the word for a flour tortilla filled with pork and cheese!
Ironically, the birth country of gringo doesn’t actually use this word very much! Gringo is more often heard among Latin American immigrants rather than native Spaniards. In Spain, guiri is a more popular term for foreigners.
In Peru, gringo meaning relates to fair-skinned people—even Peruvians! For example, one Peruvian might describe another light-skinned Peruvian as a gringo, even though they’re not a foreigner.
However, gringo is still used as a label for foreigners, and fair-skinned foreigners will hear it most often.
Some Peruvians will argue that “true” gringos are only people from the U.S., but others use the term more generally.
Gringo is mostly used in Argentina’s rural regions. The non-Spanish Europeans who first established its agricultural colonies were Argentina’s first gringos. Today, European immigrants, especially Argentina’s large Italian population, are still sometimes called gringos.
In Panama, gringo is just another descriptor word like tall, short, small, etc. Often Panamanians will lump North Americans, Europeans, Australians and others together, referring to them all as gringos.
Ecuadorians describe non-Hispanics as gringos. Foreigners use the word too! Sometimes they use it to poke fun at each other or to replicate American slang like “hey, dude.” For example, they might say, “you’re going gringo today” in reference to someone wearing an American outfit complete with a backpack, baseball cap, and tennis shoes.
In Costa Rica, gringo is widely used to describe any white foreigner but only as a description. It doesn’t usually have a negative or positive connotation.
While expats in Belize might use gringo to poke fun at themselves, locals only really use it for rude foreigners.
When used in Brazil, gringo simply means foreigner and has no connection to any physical characteristics or specific countries.
Brazilians lump all foreigners together, even those from other Latin American countries! Unlike other countries, gringo has no connection to physical appearance in Brazil. This means that skin color makes no difference in how this word is used!
Instead, Brazilians refer to fair-skinned or blondes by their nationality.
Cleary, the term gringo has no single definition! Through the years, this word adapted to fit the needs of different groups. It’s likely that gringo will continue to grow and change in the years to come. What do you think gringo will mean in the future?
Where Have You Heard Gringo Being Used?
Have you ever been called a gringo? Does learning its history change how you view the word? Share your thoughts about this versatile word in the comments!
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