Mexican X-plainer: Greek Gringos?

As a result of my “güero” article, several readers asked me to explain where the word “gringo” came from.

The etymology is actually really simple, in my opinion, but first we have to dispel some folk etymologies and learn a couple of linguistic processes by which words evolve.

A) It’s not from “Green Go!” due to uniforms during Mexican-US War. US uniforms were blue (except for a small regiment).
B) It’s also not from soldiers singing “Green Grow the Lilacs” as they entered battle —there’s no evidence for this silly theory.
C) It’s also not from the cry “Erin go bragh” leaving the lips of Irish soldiers.

The main evidence debunking all three of these theories is that the word predates the 19th century conflicts between the US and Mexico. It was first recorded in Spain, in a 1787 dictionary.

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Diccionario castellano con las voces de ciencias y artes

“GRINGOS: what foreigners are called in Malaga if they have a certain accent that keeps them from speaking Spanish easily and naturally; in Madrid they use the same name, and for the same reason, mainly for the Irish.”

A century later, a dictionary from Argentina assures us all European foreigners (English, German, French, Italian) are called “gringo” by the working class … but not Spaniards, Hispanic Americans, Brazilians, or Portuguese.

From the 1890 Argentine dictionary Vocabulario rioplatense razonado

Here’s a usage example from around 1810, the song “Cachirulo,” popular in Spain. Verse five complains about the “Gringo Count,” referring to General Henry Joseph O’Donnell, descended from a line of Irish nobility, who was made Count of Abisbal by the king. Explaining the term “gringo,” the editor of this 1819 collection says, “Gringo is a word of the commoners, meaning foreigner.”

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So it’s quite clear that the origin of the word “gringo” had nothing to do with US-Mexico relations.

How did it arise, then? Let me teach you about two important phenomena.

First, EPENTHESIS.

This is when new vowels or consonants are added to a word.

For example “against” was originally “againes.”

Thousands words went through this sort of transformation. You can see it happening now, as well, when people say “hamPster” for “hamster” or “famBily” for “family.”

It’s pretty common in Spanish, too, both in its evolution from Vulgar Latin and in modern pronunciations.

For example the evolution nominem > nomne > nomre > “nomBre” (name).

Or the modern “fuisteS” (“fuiste” — you went) or “troMpezar” (“tropezar” — to trip).

The other phonological (sound) process is ELISION, the removal of sounds from a word.

For example, Old English “mæġden” became “maiden,” dropping the “g.”

In modern English, elision lets “fifth” become “fith” and “going to” become “gonna.”

Ditto Spanish. Vulgar Latin *blastemare became “lastimar.”

In some modern Spanish dialects, the “s” is dropped at the end of syllables (“tú está” for “tú estás”) and the “d” between vowels (“confudío” for “confundido”).

“WHAT DOES ALL THIS HAVE TO DO WITH GRINGO, DAVID?”

Okay, okay. Here’s the lowdown.

“Gringo” arose from elision and epenthesis of the the word “griego” (Greek).

Vulgar Latin had a saying: “graecum est; non legitur” — it’s Greek; it can’t be read. (“It’s Greek to me!”)

Like the Romans, medieval Spaniards called foreigners and unintelligible languages “Greek” — GRIEGO.

There are two ways “griego” could have become “gringo,” one more likely than the other.

  1. Elision reduced this word in some folks’ mouths to “grigo,” and then epenthesis added an “n,” creating “griNgo,” a variant form.
  2. More probably, first epenthesis and THEN elision happened to create “gringo,” given the recorded use of “griengo” in Medieval Spanish documents. griego -> griengo -> gringo

The two words were used interchangeably for some time. Take a look at this snippet from the article “On the Purity of Our Language,” published in the Spanish newspaper Minerva in October of 1818. The author says of certain “wise men” that they “just as quickly speak in the Gringo [Greek] of the classics as they do in the rarefied tongue of the sciences.”

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In the 1869 Dictionary of the Royal Academy of Spanish, we find this entry for GRINGO: “A word used colloquially. Interchanged with ‘griego’ [Greek] in the phrase “hablar en gringo’ [to speak in Gringo], to speak in an unintelligible language.”

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From the 1890 Vocabulario rioplatense razonado

It’s pretty incontrovertible.

So, to sum up:

  1. “Gringo” arose in Spain and spread throughout Latin America.
  2. It comes from “griego” (Greek). It’s a dialectal variant that arose through common phonological processes that shape all language every single day. No need for fanciful, unsupported folk etymologies to understand the origin of the word.

Of course, for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, the clash between the US and Mexico led to “gringo” being used pretty exclusively for white citizens of the US. That usage has important sociolinguistic and cultural consequences. The folk etymologies of “gringo” encode, like folktales and dichos, key features of our collective memory.

Our communities navigate our fraught relationship with US hegemony and whiteness through the term “gringo” in ways that this straightforward etymology does not encompass.

It is not my intention to erase those complexities.

A Mexican-American author and translator from deep South Texas, David Bowles teaches literature and Nahuatl at the University of Texas Río Grande Valley.

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