The Real Meaning of Gringo
First things first, I am a Latina married to a gringo and what you are about to read is my perspective and opinion of the usage of the expression gringo, considering I was born in Latin America and now I live in the U.S. What I am trying to say is that I have both perspectives, the gringolandia one and the Latina one.
That being said let me ask you: Have you ever been called a gringo? Or perhaps brought some of your American family back to your home country and heard the locals referring to them as gringos? If so, you might feel alienated or offended by this term because it calls out the fact that you are different from the locals. However, you should remember that the meaning of gringo is not automatically offensive! After hundreds of years this word has come to be just another ingredient in the linguistic soup that all Spanish speakers share.
Definition of Gringo
The Real Academia Española’s Spanish Language dictionary defines a gringo as a foreigner who is not a Spanish speaker. In many countries gringo applies specifically to an English speaker, especially an American. In other countries such as Bolivia and Peru, the definition of gringo also includes some reference to a light-skinned or fair-haired person.
Origins of the Word Gringo
The word gringo came to Latin America via Spain, where it was used as a way of referring to foreigners who didn’t speak good Spanish. It first appeared in a Spanish dictionary in 1786.
Experts have suggested two possible origins for the word gringo. The first theory is that it comes from the word “griego” or Greek. When foreigners couldn’t speak good Spanish, locals would make reference to their equivalent of the phrase “it’s all Greek to me” and eventually the word “griego” evolved into gringo.
The second theory seems more likely in terms of phonetics. This theory posits that the word comes from “peregringo” which means wayfarer or traveler in Caló, the language spoken by Spain’s gypsies. These two words sound more alike than griego and gringo and it’s easy to see how the first part of peregringo could have gotten dropped off. Let’s not forget that peregringo is simply peregrine is Castilian Spanish.
Is the Meaning of Gringo Offensive?
The meaning of gringo itself isn’t offensive, but it can sometimes be used in an offensive way. Usually if a curse word is used with gringo, or it is said in a mean or insulting manner, the speaker does intend for you to take offense.
Did you know that is much more common for native Spanish speakers to say the word gringo with a smile on their face and an indulgent shake of the head about those silly foreigners who can’t speak Spanish? You should definitely not be offended if someone calls you a gringo (or a gringa if you are a woman) while a smile and in good humor.
It is very interesting how words evolve, in Colombia specifically in Medellin where I am from, when a person doesn’t know the information the group is talking about they may say: “esta gringa” or even the person herself may say: “estoy gringa” or “me quede gringa,” meaning “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”.
Remember, many Spanish speakers love word play, and sometimes even use the word gringo to make jokes about other locals. In some countries, gringo may be used to refer to someone who is actually very dark-skinned, as a kind of joke or play on words considering that the main meaning of gringo is more often light-skinned. And in Peru, a well-known local surfer is known affectionately as “la gringa” for her blond hair.
So the next time you hear someone call you or someone in your family a gringo, just remember that it’s okay to be different, and don’t take offense.