I much enjoyed James Callaghan’s recounting of the tragedy of the San Patricios (November 1995), but was surprised—and not for the first time—that a fine historian should fall for the folkloric etymology that links gringo as a derogatory epithet for Americans to a Mexican mispronunciation of Green go (the Lilacs) .
There is no mystery about the etymology of gringo : it is a deformation of Spanish griego , meaning Greek—but “Greek” in a particular way, with the connotation of someone who speaks an unintelligible language—as in our expression “It’s Greek to me.”
This usage is documented as early as the sixteenth century in Spain, in such expressions as “ No sabía hablar ni latín ni gringo [He did not know how to speak either Latin or Greek],” applied to persons whose language was incomprehensible. In Latin America, gringo had a similar meaning, but in certain countries the designation was applied to specific nationalities. Therefore in Argentina in the late nineteenth century, a gringo was an Italian, in Mexico an American.