Gringo, What’s in a Word?

By Juliana Tafur, Contributing Reporter

A restaurant named "Gringo's Kitchen" at the US-Mexican border, photo by Judah Davis.

A restaurant named "Gringo's Kitchen" at the US-Mexican border, photo by Judah Davis.

RIO DE JANEIRO – “A-tok-a” is the term used to refer to foreigner in Taiwanese. Curiously, the word’s approximate translation is “big nose”. In Haitian Creole, “blan” is synonymous for white person, derived from the french word “blanc”.

Ask a Brazilian and they will tell you “Gringo” means foreigner. But who exactly is a ‘Gringo’?

“I’d find it very hard to look at a person from Argentina and tell them they’re a ‘Gringo’. I think the term is used more for people of the northern hemisphere,” says Rio de Janeiro native Ana Luisa Leite.

When asked if the term has something to do with a person’s skin color, Leite says absolutely. “When I hear ‘Gringo’, the image that comes to mind is of a sun-burnt, blonde, blue-eyed guy walking along the beach with sandals and socks up to his knees.” From this, it becomes apparent that not all so-called ‘Gringos’ in Brazil fit this bill.

But for those who do – or don’t and are still referred to as ‘Gringos’ – a debate rages about the word’s meaning and whether it’s considered derogatory. “It’s somewhat at the level of patricinha (snobby girl). It’s not terrible to use, but it does carry a bunch of meanings,” says Leite.

Another newspaper with the word "Gringo" in its name, photo by Strom Carlson.

Another newspaper with the word "Gringo" in its name, photo by Strom Carlson.

This results in a dilemma for the paper, considering the term ‘Gringo’ is a part of its name. “In naming the paper The Gringo Times, I was taking ownership of a term that included me as a foreigner. Plus, after a little research, I found out that the origin of the word has a meaning that isn’t in itself derogatory,” says Publisher Stone Korshak.

Korshak is referring to a theory which says the term ‘Gringo’ derives from the word “griego”, used in the ancient Spanish expression “hablar en griego” or “to speak Greek” – meaning to speak an unintelligible language. This is supported by a definition found in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, which also says the word was mentioned in Spanish literature as early as the eighteenth century to refer to “foreigners in Spain who spoke Spanish with an accent.”

Other less credible theories dating back to the Mexican-American war (1846-48) are a reason for debate in cyberspace. One says the word ‘Gringo’ derives from the song, “Green Grow the Rashes, O” by Scottish poet Robert Burns, as it was sung by American soldiers. Another attributes the word to a Mexican chant, where the expression “green go” was used in reference to the green uniforms of American troops. The problem is that both theories are disproved by the earlier use of the word ‘Gringo’ in Spain.

Regardless of its origin, Korshak says he now believes the term ‘Gringo’ is limiting the publication’s growth. “Advertising the paper under The Gringo Times here in Rio is no problem, because the locals are fine with the term. We’ve encountered more hesitation with international marketers though, where the expression is often perceived as pejorative.”

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To Korshak’s point, the Managing Partner of Ipanema-based Shenanigan’s Irish Pub, who advertises with the paper, says he likes the name. “The first time I heard about the paper, I found the usage of the word ‘Gringo’ intriguing,” says Michael Taylor. “I think the name reaches those who may be looking for a little comfort of home, just like my clientele.”

Taylor moved to Rio de Janeiro seven years ago. He doesn’t feel like a Gringo any more, but isn’t offended by the term either. Plus, he believes the name does the paper well and matches its content. But Leite disagrees: “When I first heard the paper’s name, I didn’t expect it to have serious news. At the very least, I thought I’d see a column with jokes of Gringo experiences in Brazil,” she says.

So now, we’re opening up the issue to you, our reader. What do you think of our current name? If we were to change it, which new name would you embrace? Please check out our online survey to see the name options and let us know your thoughts!.

21 Responses to "Gringo, What’s in a Word?"

  1. Charlie Hager  October 28, 2009 at 9:13 AM

    I’m an American in Rio for my 2nd time teaching English. I hear the term “Gringo” thrown around quite a bit. And personally, I think it depends on the context its used whether or not its offensive or not.

  2. Jasper Strickland  October 29, 2009 at 12:04 PM

    The word Gringo came from the the indians from mexico. When TeddyRoosevelt unit was down in mexico fighting the mexicans
    they wore green uniforms and when they charge they would say
    green go the indians heard this and when they went back to camp
    they told about these strange people fighting the mexicans the
    Indains back at to camp said what do they call these people they
    said green gos

  3. Rafael Cresci  November 1, 2009 at 9:42 AM

    Another recurrent story about the origin of the term, mostly told to Brazilians by school teachers, is backed on the British Empire expansion throughout the world with its railway constructing (in India, South America, etc). When instructing train drivers about the traffic control lights system, they would say “Green go, red stop” and kept the learning drivers repeating it as a mnemonic.

  4. Dieter Altenburger  November 21, 2009 at 6:23 AM

    I have a completely different theory regarding the origin of the word “Gringo”. Apparently the word was created in Mexico when the country was ruled by the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian. Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico was proclaimed in 1864 with the backing of Napoleon III. After only three years he was executed by revolutionary forces and his soldiers, who used green uniforms, were invited to leave the country with the words ” Green Go!”. Due to the phonetic spelling “Green Go” eventually became “Gringo”.

  5. n.jordan  December 24, 2009 at 1:08 PM

    Before I looked up this definition I logically and intelligently worked it out. As a child growing up watching these cheesy westerns it seemed like this word was used towards people of white skin. Which was the first explanation that came to mind as my son and I discussed what this word meant. Then I figured out it was More than just the skin colour. I figured out that if you take the G away, you are left with the word “RINGO” which means you are part of the ring. group. similar circle. With the G put infront of it , implies that you are out of this circle, not part of the group. Like foreigner. Not part of the community. An outsider.

  6. stax  October 8, 2010 at 11:53 AM

    Gringo is a deragatory word

    Try and remember one thing here, it does not matter what you feel when you are saying it, so if you are Brazilian and you call someone a Gringo and they are offended then stop calling them GRINGOS

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