While generally seen as an insult, the word “gringo,” used in the Spanish language to describe a foreigner, may not be as discourteous as most believe. The term itself has had a mixed and mysterious past, and its origins are shrouded in mystery. Let’s take a look at some of the main theories as to where it originated.
1. Green Uniforms
When the United States invaded Mexico, naturally some people were upset. So the denizens of Mexico saw the Yanks wearing their green outfits and said (in English, for some reason) “Green, go home!” Eventually, this was shortened to “gringo!” and became the word used today.
This clear theory is mostly just folklore. At the time, the United States military did not wear green clothing. This style didn’t take hold until World War 1, well after the invasion of Mexico.
2. Green Horns
Another interesting theory comes from the term for an apprentice jeweler. In Europe, they were referred to as “green horns.” This term drifted over to the United States, and people on the east coast of the nation were called the term, and eventually – so the story goes – Spanish-speakers appropriated “green horns” into “gringos.” (Folks on the west coast were called, appropriately, “westmen.”)
The origin of this theory is certainly in question too. Mainly because the term dates back to the 1800s, and “gringo” can actually be traced further back than that, read on!
3. Terreros y Pando
The first written example of “gringo” comes from Terreros y Pando’s “Diccionario castellano con las voces de Ciencias y Artes y sus correspondientes en las 3 lenguas francesa, latina e italiana.” In this 1796 book, there’s a passage that states, “gringos llaman en Málaga a los extranjeros que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo nombre con particularidad a los irlandeses.”
This translates to “gringos is what in Malaga they call foreigners who have any kind of accent which prevents them from speaking easy and natural Castillian; and in Madrid they give the same name in particular to the Irish.”
Basically, “gringo” was used to describe someone who the listener couldn’t understand properly.
4. Greek to Me
Have you ever heard the phrase “it’s all Greek to me?” Basically, this means whatever’s being said is so foreign and strange that you have no idea what they mean. Well, this isn’t just an English saying. In some Spanish cultures, anyone who is unintelligible is speaking “Griego,” or Greek.
However, “gringo” might not actually come from “Griego.” Scholars argue that it would take a few phonetic steps to get to that point. Instead, they say it comes from the Caló language from a variant of (pere) gringo, which means “wayfarer,” or “stranger.”
5. Musical Origins
Now that we’ve basically gotten it nailed down, let’s hear one more from folklore. During the Mexican-American War, several hundred Irish were sent down to fight for the US. While there, they deserted; Mexico was predominantly Catholic, like the Irish, while the US was predominantly Protestant.
Since the Irish’s main color was green and they sang songs with names like “Green Grow the Rushes, Oh!” and “Green Grow the Lilacs,” the Mexicans affectionately called them “gringos.” An ironic turn for a term that’s usually seen as very derogatory and an intriguing possibility given the use of the term in Madrid to also refer to the Irish.