¡Pinche Gringo!

Your history textbook seems a bit wishy-washy about the Mexican-American War. There’s a romantic illustration of gallant soldiers on decorated horses, and the details of whom invaded whom and why are glossed over. The main takeaway for the exam is that the U.S. gained 529,000 square miles of land in line with the expansionist movement and Manifest Destiny. So, you remember what you can and move on to the next lesson.


Remember Your Regiment, U.S. Army in Action Series, 2d Dragoons charge in Mexican War 1846, commissioned by the United States Army (Public Domain)


American Progress, by John Gast 1872 (Public Domain)

Sometime later on in life, you’re called a gringo, a gringa. As long as you’ve behaved well, this will be followed by an apology (he didn’t mean it disrespectfully) and then the question: Do you know where the term gringo comes from?

Now just wait, this is not a question you’re meant to answer. He wants to tell the story, “GREEN GO! GREEN GO! Their jackets were green, you see. The soldiers. The soldiers who stole our land, our Mexico.” You remember their uniforms being blue in your book, but say nothing. It was just a painting, and it seems this is still a very sensitive subject.

You smile and nod, you’ve heard something similar before. No reason to take it personally, after all, americano refers to inhabitants of the entire continent, technically norte americano would also include people from both Mexico and Canada, and estadounidense is just such a mouth full. You agree, gringo rolls off the tongue nicely. You think you’ll adopt it as part of your vocabulary.

¡Pero no te preocupes! Tú me cayes bien.” So you don’t worry, you share in a toast to Mexico’s long life (¡Viva México!), and you carry on your way until repeating the same conversation with someone else, somewhere else, at some undetermined point in the future.

But what if this anecdote, so passionately and frequently told, is more folklore than etymology? Perhaps it’s true that a green-garbed army was told to go. Or some accounts say the demonym stuck after Mexicans misinterpreted lyrics of an old Irish-American tune “Green Grow the Lilacs” that U.S. troops sang between battles. However, the 1787 version of El Diccionario Castellano, published in Spain almost a century before this conflict took place, proves gringos have been around for quite a long while. The exact origin is still up for dispute: some claim it’s a variation of griego (the Spanish word for “Greek”) and others say it might have come from shortening peregringo (meaning “pilgrim” or “wanderer” in Caló, the Romaini language of Spain). Nevertheless, the definition references no concern whatsoever about the colors foreigners wear, and rather it complains about the gibberish they speak: “Foreigners in Malaga are called gringos, who have particular kinds of accent that deprive them from easy and natural Castilian speech, and in Madrid the name is given especially to the Irish for the same reason.”

Gringo def-01

So, could you avoid setting off national sentiments by cleaning up your accent?  Not likely. On this one, legend reigns supreme, pinche gringo. You’d do best to buy the next round and sing your company a few lines of “Green Grow the Lilacs.”


…or then again, maybe you should just stick to the drinks. ¡Salud!


For more on the origin of “gringo,” listen to this entertaining podcast by Lexicon Valley or this informative overview by Gerald Erichsen.

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