Gringo is a borrowing from Spanish and is alteration of Griego, or Greek. In Spanish, the phrase hablar en griego, to talk in Greek, means to speak unintelligibly. This is akin the the English phrase, it’s Greek to me. Both apparently come from the Medieval Latin proverb, graecum est; non potest legi, it is Greek; it cannot be read.

P. Estaban de Terreros y Pando’s 1787 Diccionario Castellano contains the following:

Gringos, Ilaman en Malaga a los estranjeros, que tienen cierta especie de acento, que los priva de una locución fácil y natural Castellana; y en Madrid dan el mismo, y por la misma causa con partiuclaridad a los Irlandeses.
(Gringos, they call in Malaga those foreigners who have a certain type of accent which keeps them from speaking Castilian easily and naturally; and in Madrid they are given the same name, and for the same reason, particularly to the Irish.)

So a gringo is a foreigner, a stranger.

The transfer to English occurred during the 1846-48 Mexican-American War. It’s English usage is first recorded in J.W. Audubon’s Western Journal of 1849:

We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called “Gringoes.”

There is a popular, but incorrect, story that the Yankee soldiers of the Mexican war were fond of singing a song, based on a Robert Burns poem, which was popular at the time, the refrain of which went, “Green grow the rushes, O.” (Alternative versions of the tale give it as “Green grow the lilacs.")

According to the tale, the Mexicans, probably as tired of hearing the song as you are of the latest Top-40 hit, began calling the Americans green grows, which eventually became gringos. Although the tale is associated with the Mexican war, the story is disproved by the earlier Spanish uses of the word.

Partridge’s Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English records a variant of the tale. In his version it was not Yankees, but rather that it was Irish volunteers in Bolivar’s army that were fond of singing the song. While this would take the origin of the term back a few decades, it is not far enough back to be the source of the Castilian word.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Rawson’s Devious Derivations)

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