Yo, Gringo



Nivel: avanzado


One of my students educated me recently when we had a chat about the words ‘Yankee’ and ‘Gringo’.


I have always thought that ‘Yankee’ is a pejorative word (that is, a word showing contempt or disapproval) especially when it is shortened to ‘Yank’, as it usually is in Europe. However, as I am not North American, I don’t care: I don’t take offense when it is applied to me; you might as well call a cat a dog, for all I care.


Celebraciones de Cinco de Mayo. Foto de desfile: Lenora Hayman.


The North American word for an Englishman, ‘a Limey’ is just as offensive as ‘Yankee’ so we are quits.

I should perhaps mention here that in international English, to demonstrate that I don’t care, I would say, ‘I couldn’t care less.’ To express exactly the same idea, the North Americans say, ‘I could care less.’ If you can explain this interesting difference, write to us.


However, I learned that I am certainly a ‘gringo’ because I do not come from the Spanish-speaking world. My student explained that ‘gringo’ is not intended to be offensive and that it applies to Germans, French, Dutch people, or what have you. Well, I thought, that’s OK by me.

My student went on to explain that the word ‘gringo’ probably derives from its use by Mexican soldiers in their battles against the North Americans.

According to this theory, the Mexicans would shout at the North Americans, ‘Green, go!’ because the Americans wore green uniforms and were not welcome there (wherever ‘there’ was).

19th century Mexican soldier

This is one of the craziest explanations I have ever heard. In the first place, I don’t think American soldiers ever wore green uniforms: their colors were either blue or gray. But the suggestion that any group of Mexican foot soldiers would have this command of the imperative use of the verb ‘to go’ in English is beyond belief.

I have always understood that the word ‘gringo’ was invented by Mexican soldiers under Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata, from the English song ‘Green Grow the Rushes - Oh’, which the American troops used as a marching song.



Soldiers on the Mexican side might have heard a lot of this tune and, of course, on this theory, they only had to learn two words phonetically.

However, this idea might be just as crazy as the first one. The Oxford Dictionary of English (where ‘gringo’ appears as an English word) says its origin is: ‘Spanish, literally ‘foreign, foreigner or gibberish’

But my Spanish dictionary (Oceano Practico) doesn’t agree. It says ‘adj. y Sur.Amer. Norte Americano.’


Whatever its origins might be, ‘gringo’ is a fairly polite word for a foreigner. I guess that most countries have unpleasant names for foreigners.


Mexico City


I regret that in the English language such words are plentiful, repugnant, and usually racist: Spick, Spade, Guinea, Yid, Canuck, Polack, Paddy. This list is short as I don’t want you to learn such words from me.


Anyone who feels the need to insult me in a cultural or racist way must call me a ‘Taig’ (pronounced ‘Teyg’ –con ‘g’ dura), for that is what I am; basically Irish Catholic peasant, I suppose.

The problem is – or was – that I’d never heard of this word until I was about 35. So how could I be offended, at say, age 29? If anyone had used that word on me at that age it would not have provoked hostility or fear, but simple curiosity.

I believe that it’s important what we call each other: I am not too worried about the national epithets mentioned above because good breeding and good manners usually remove such words from a person’s vocabulary as they reach maturity. Unfortunately, some people never reach maturity.

At the personal level unwanted names, nicknames, are usually offensive. Nicknames can cause a lot of grief. On the subject of nicknames there should be only one rule: never address a person, or refer to a person, by a nickname unless he or she has directly asked you to do so (and many people do ask you, because they like their nickname).

That is not a rule of English, but it should be a rule of everywhere. I say no more: I am writing this in a country where ‘gordo’ and ‘gorda’ (fatty) are terms of endearment, so this suggestion might be a lost cause.



1. Only one of the following statements is TRUE:

a) The writer (John James) is Mexican.

b) The writer was talking to a student.

c) The words discussed are ‘Canadian’ and ‘Guate’.

d) ‘Yankee’ is a peninsula word.

2. Only one of the following is UNTRUE (false)

a) The animal mentioned is a tiger.

b) John James didn’t take offense.

c) No lion is mentioned in the article.

d) A cat and a dog appear in this text.

3. Which group of people says, ‘I could care less.’?

4. Who explained the meaning of ‘Gringo’ to John James?

5. At one point the article mentions three nationalities: French, Dutch, and what else?

6. Who is said to have shouted, ‘Green go!’?

7. What two colors are mentioned after ‘green uniforms’?

8. Only one of the following statements is UNTRUE (false):

a) ‘Green Grow the Rushes –O’ is a marching song.

b) Pancho Villa was a Mexican leader.

c) The soldiers had to learn only four words phonetically.

d) A ‘foot soldier’ means an ordinary infantry soldier.

9. Where does ‘gringo’ appear as an English word?

10. Which Spanish dictionary does the article refer to?

11. Only one of the following is TRUE:

a) English has no offensive words.

b) ‘Plentiful’ means abundant.

c) Ideas are never crazy.

d) Insulting words cannot be racist.

12. Why is the list of offensive words short?

13. According to the article the word ‘Taig’ would have caused:

a) fear b) hunger c) hostility d) curiosity


14. What is the writer’s opinion of unwanted nicknames?


15. Which of these does John James consider to be TRUE:

a) There are many rules about nicknames.

                     b) Everybody in the world has a nickname.

c) It is important what we call each other.

d) A term of endearment is a kind of food.



1.b), 2.b), 3. North Americans, 4. A student, 5. Germans, 6.Mexican soldiers, 7. blue and gray, 8.c), 9. The Oxford Dictionary of English, 10. Oceano Practico, 11.b), 12. ’Because I don’t want you to learn such words from me.’ 13. d), 14. Nicknames can cause a lot of grief, 15. c).