The Grammarphobia Blog

Was El Greco a gringo?

Q: I’ve heard that gringo, the derogatory Mexican term for someone from north of the border, originated during the Mexican-American War. The story is that the Americans often marched while singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho.” Is there any truth to this?

A: Sorry, but there’s no truth to the popular legend that Mexicans (or anybody else) coined the word gringo after hearing US soldiers (or any other soldiers) singing “Green Grow the Rushes, Ho” or “Green Grow the Lilacs” (another mythological source of the word). 

Thanks to the Internet, the story lives on and on, though etymologists discredited it long ago.

Gringo was recorded in a Castilian Spanish dictionary in the 1700s (way before the Mexican-American War, 1846-48), and had undoubtedly been in use before lexicographers caught up to it.

In Spanish, gringo means a foreigner, an Englishman, a North American, or unintelligible language.

In English, “gringo” is a “contemptuous name for an Englishman or an Anglo-American,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

It was first recorded in English, the OED says, by John W. Audubon in his Western Journal (1849): “We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called ‘Gringoes.’ ”  

Etymologists generally believe that the Spanish term gringo comes from griego, Spanish for “Greek,”  which in turn is derived from the Latin Graecus.

The Spanish lexicographer Esteban de Terreros explained in El Diccionario Castellano (1787) that  the word  gringo was a phonetic alteration of griego.

Why “Greek”? A word-history note in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.) explains the connection this way:

“The saying ‘It’s Greek to me’ exists in Spanish, as it does in English, and helps us understand why griego came to mean ‘unintelligible language’ and perhaps, by further extension of this idea, ‘stranger, that is, one who speaks a foreign language.’ ”

American Heritage adds that the “altered form gringo lost touch with Greek but has the senses ‘unintelligible language,’ ‘foreigner, especially an English person,’ and in Latin America, ‘North American or Britisher.’ ”

All this makes you wonder whether a Toledan would have considered El Greco a gringo.

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