Meaning, Origin, and Uses of 'Gringo'

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So someone calls you a gringo or gringa. Should you feel insulted?

It depends.

Nearly always referring to foreigners in a Spanish-speaking country, gringo is one of those words whose precise meaning, and often its emotional quality, can vary with geography and context. Yes, it can be and often is an insult. But it can also be a term of affection or neutral. And the word has been used long enough outside of Spanish-speaking areas that it is listed in English dictionaries, spelled and pronounced essentially the same in both languages.

Origin of Gringo

The etymology or origin of the Spanish word is uncertain, although it is likely to have come from griego, the word for "Greek." In Spanish, as in English, it has long been common to refer to an unintelligible language as Greek. (Think "It's Greek to me" or "​Habla en griego.") So over time, griego's apparent variant, gringo, came to refer to a foreign language and to foreigners in general. The first known written English use of the word was in 1849 by an explorer.

One bit of folk etymology about gringo is that it originated in Mexico during the Mexican-American war because Americans would sing the song "Green Grow the Lilies." As the word originated in Spain long before there was a Spanish-speaking Mexico, there is no truth to this urban legend. In fact, at one time, the word in Spain was often used to refer specifically to the Irish. And according to a 1787 dictionary, it often referred to someone who spoke Spanish poorly.

Related Words

In both English and Spanish, gringa is used to refer to a female (or, in Spanish, as a feminine adjective).

In Spanish, the term Gringolandia is sometimes used to refer to the United States. Gringolandia can also refer to the tourist zones of some Spanish-speaking countries, especially those areas where many Americans congregate.

Another related word is engringarse, to act like a gringo. Although the word appears in dictionaries, it doesn't appear to have much actual use.

How the Meaning of Gringo Varies

In English, the term "gringo" is often used to refer to an American or British person visiting Spain or Latin America. In Spanish-speaking countries, its use is more complex with its meaning, at least its emotional meaning, depending to a great extent on its context.

Probably more often than not, gringo is a term of contempt used to refer to foreigners, especially Americans and sometimes the British. However, it can also be used with foreign friends as a term of affection. One translation sometimes given for the term is "Yankee," a term that sometimes is neutral but also can be used contemptuously (as in "Yankee, go home!").

The dictionary of the Real Academia Española offers these definitions, which can vary according to the geography of where the word is used:

  1. Foreigner, especially one who speaks English, and in general one who speaks a language that isn't Spanish.
  2. As an adjective, to refer to a foreign language.
  3. A resident of the United States (definition used in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay, and Venezuela).
  4. Native of England (definition used in Uruguay).
  5. Native of Russia (definition used in Uruguay).
  6. A person with white skin and blond hair (definition used in Bolivia, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru).
  7. An unintelligible language.
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Erichsen, Gerald. "Meaning, Origin, and Uses of 'Gringo'." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Erichsen, Gerald. (2023, April 5). Meaning, Origin, and Uses of 'Gringo'. Retrieved from Erichsen, Gerald. "Meaning, Origin, and Uses of 'Gringo'." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).