The “Bad” Portuguese Word – Gringo!
Is gringo a bad word in Brazil? Well, let’s see.
Jim comes from the United States. He is white and speaks Portuguese with an accent. He’s a gringo.
Stephanie comes from Poland. Her parents are of Brazilian origin, but Stephanie doesn’t speak Portuguese and behaves funny for Brazilian standards. Even though she looks Brazilian, she is a gringa.
Emanuel comes from Argentina. He has stunning brown eyes and suntanned skin and speaks Portuguese with an almost impeccable accent. You wouldn’t notice it if you didn’t look for it. He’s a gringo, too.
What does Gringo Mean?
Well, if you’re not part of the Latino world – and hey, if you’re learning Portuguese and don’t speak Spanish as a native language, you probably aren’t –, then you need to get acquainted with the term “gringo.”
One friend of mine originally from a Latino country told me that it refers to the “Yankees that invade other countries to overthrow their governments and pillage their resources” (quotes are mine, to reflect the original sense, but my friend told me this story in more amicable terms).
To show animosity toward the invading Americans, the local communities would refer to them as “gringo”. This is the way we, Latinos, would pronounce the words “green” (referring to the uniforms) and “go” (well, you get the idea).
But is that the Real Origin of Gringo? A Few Theories
You’ve probably heard the popular theory that involves the Mexican-American War (1846-1848).
Legend has it that Mexicans told Americans to go home. But because Americans wore green coats, the Mexican soldiers yelled “green go home!” or some such. Hence, greengo, later gringo, became a derogatory word to refer to Americans.
And that’s what I’ve been told.
Another theory states the Gring… ehm, American soldiers sung a song with the words “Green grows…” while marching around. And that became the source of this word – since Mexicans didn’t understand English and caught only the two first words of the entire song.
But the probable origin has nothing to do with wars, Americans, or not speaking English properly.
It’s Greek to Me
That’s an expression Brazilians share with their Spanish-speaking friends.
And it means “I don’t understand anything of what you say”.
And the Spanish word for Greek is griego. (Portuguese, “grego”.)
And in 1787 (before the Mexican-American War) El Diccionario Castellano 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.”
So, it’s the probable origin, but this word might be older.
But Why do Brazilians Use the Word “Gringo” with a Different Meaning?
Why is the sky above and not below?
There are many possible answers to that, and all I can give you are assumptions based on data and speculations.
One of them is that the Spanish-speaking community in Latin America is much more widespread and fraternal than the Portuguese one. You see, my friends from the Dominican Republic talk about Argentinians the way we here in Bahia talk about people from São Paulo.
Because of this affinity in the linguistic community, the words get smuggled and shared… and their meaning ends up spreading as well.
In Brazil, we speak Portuguese (and other languages, if you didn’t know that). And perhaps because of the different language, Brazilians tend to see themselves as not being part of the Latino community (just ask your Brazilian friend whether they think they’re Latino). Thus, although we got the word, we didn’t get the concept. That’s why the word gringo has such a broad meaning.
Depending on where you go in Brazil, you may get flagged as a gringo faster.
Tall, blond people are not common in my state. So, if you’re tall and blonde, you’ll probably be called gringo. Even if it’s only a nickname – and you are Brazilian.
Tall, blond people in the South are common. There, if you’re tall and blonde, will probably mingle with the locals. But sooner or later, you’ll be found out 😉
How do Brazilians Deal with Gringos?
Brazilians tend to be very friendly once they find out you are a gringo. Especially if you are a tourist. They will go out of their way to help you.
Of course, even if you receive lots of hospitality, don’t abuse it. You might get yourself in trouble.
All in all, my gringo friends in Brazil say almost unanimously that their experience is pleasant, and that Brazilian people are nice.
As a Brazilian, I almost agree with the latter part of this statement, but that’s a discussion for another day.
Now, I would like to know: what’s been your experience as a gringo with Brazilians and in Brazil? Leave your opinions in the comments below.