On the latest episode of the Slate podcast Lexicon Valley, I delve into the many stories surrounding the origins of the word gringo, an epithet used by Latin Americans for foreign speakers, typically American Anglophones. Though a great deal of vivid folklore surrounds the word, its actual etymology is just as interesting.

The most popular stories about the word have to do with U.S. military involvement in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), and they're quite literally colorful, having to do with the color green. Sometimes it's said that a regiment of American soldiers were wearing green coats, eliciting a Mexican response of "green go home." Another family of folk etymologies describes American soldiers marching through Mexican territory while singing a song beginning with the words "Green grows..." There are many candidates for such a song, including the English traditional song "Green Grow the Rushes, O" and the Robert Burns song "Green Grow the Rashes, O." Yet another British song, "Green Grow the Laurels," was turned into an American cowboy song, "Green Grow the Lilacs," as used by the Oklahoma playwright Lynn Riggs in the 1930 Broadway play of the same name. (That play served as the basis for the musical Oklahoma!)

But there's not a shred of evidence that any of these songs were actually sung by soldiers in the Mexican War. It is true, however, that the word entered English in the aftermath of the war, turning up in two sources from 1849. One was in the diary of John Woodhouse Audubon, son of (and assistant to) the famous naturalist and wildlife painter John James Audubon. The younger Audubon hooked up with an ill-fated expedition from New York to California during the Gold Rush, with the goal of collecting specimens and making paintings and sketches for a book on the mammals of North America. The circuitous route taken by the group took them through northern Mexico, and on June 13, 1849, Audubon wrote this diary entry:

Cerro Gordo is a miserable den of vagabonds, with nothing to support it but its petty garrison of a hundred and fifty cavalry mounted on mules. We were hooted and shouted at as we passed through, and called "Gringoes," etc., but that did not prevent us from enjoying their delicious spring water; it was cool and delightful. Our men rushed to it, and drank two pint cups full each, hardly breathing between times; it was the first good water we had had since leaving the Mississippi.

While Audubon's diary went unpublished until long after his death, another appearance of gringo that same year reached a mass audience. Henry Augustus Wise, a U.S. Navy lieutenant, published Los Gringos; or, an inside View of Mexico and California late in 1849. In the preface, Lt. Wise wrote, "The title — Los Gringos, with which this volume has been christened, is the epithet — and rather a reproachful one — used in California and Mexico to designate the descendants of the Anglo-Saxon race."

After gringo entered English, it would take more than three decades before Americans started speculating about the origins of the word. On Nov. 3, 1883, the Los Angeles Times and the Arizona Weekly Citizen both published an article with a musical explanation:

The word Gringo, the term applied to American and English by the Mexicans, is said to have had an amusing origin. A lot of sailors belonging to an English man-of-war at Mazatlan went ashore, and got on a rip-roaring drunk. While parading the streets one of them was singing "Green Grow the rushes," etc. The Mexicans only caught the first two words, and dubbed them Grin-go's, and it has stuck ever since.

But the version of this story that really stuck was one written by the famous journalist Nellie Bly (the pen name of Elizabeth Cochrane), when she was a 21-year-old correspondent for her local newspaper, the Pittsburgh Dispatch. Bly went to Mexico for six months, and in one report widely circulated in American newspapers in 1886, she wrote:

People often wonder and ask why the Mexican calls the American a "Gringo," or what the word means... When the Americans went to war with Mexico, a melody, every verse of which ended with "Green grow the rushes, O," was very popular. It pleased almost everybody's fancy, and was sung by old and young. While in camp the soldiers would sing it constantly, and all the Mexicans could hear was "Green grow the rushes, O." They immediately began to call the American soldiers by the first two words as it sounded to them, "grin go," They made it into one word, by which they will ever know the American — "Gringo."
Bly repeated this story in her 1888 book Six Months in Mexico, but the following year another American correspondent in Mexico took exception to her gringo etymology:
"Nellie Bly" makes more errors still. Her explanation of the word "gringo" — a familiar native designation for the American — is absurd. Instead of attributing its origin properly to the "green coats" of a Kentucky regiment stationed in Mexico during the war of '40-47 she says it came from the popularity of the song, "Green Grow the Rushes, O," in the American camps.
—S.C. Robertson, "Saunterings in Mexico," Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), Sept. 14, 1889

The "green coat" etymology was just as specious, however. Finally, some scholarly light was shed on the topic when the first English dictionary entry for gringo was published in 1889, when the great American philologist William Dwight Whitney published the "G" volume of his Century Dictionary. In the entry, Whitney dispenses with the folk etymologies and gives the following origin: "[Sp. gibberish; prob. a pop. var. of Griego, Greek.]"

The etymology of gringo from Griego meaning "Greek" had already circulated in Spanish-language dictionaries for a century, well before the Mexican-American War. In a 1787 dictionary, El Diccionario Castellano, Esteban de Terreros explained: "Foreigners in Malaga are called gringos, who have particular kinds of accent that deprive them from easy and natural Castilian speech, and in Madrid the name is given especially to the Irish for the same reason." (Irish soldiers joined the Spanish army in the sixteenth through eighteenth centuries, so Spaniards would have been familiar with their "gibberish.")  

The use of Greek as a stand-in for an unintelligible "foreigner talk" is something familiar to English speakers as well, as in the expression "It's all Greek to me." And languages like English and Spanish likely picked on Greek because of monastic scribes of the medieval era who had difficulty transcribing Greek bits of Latin manuscripts. For more on this, see my recent Word Routes column, "If It's 'All Greek To You,' Blame Monks And Shakespeare." With Griego mutating into the variant form gringo in Spanish, the original resonance with Greek was likely lost, but the epithet's use in Latin America serves as a reminder of how contact across a linguistic divide is often fraught with tension.