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damn foreigners

Can gringos dance the flamenco? Do peregrines like walnuts? Well, they should, as they all imply something "foreign".

It is often said that gringo arose among Mexican Spanish-speakers because the Americans sang a song containing the words "green grow the lilies" during the Mexican-American War, and the Mexicans named them after the first two words of the song.  This is a pretty tale but dead wrong.  The word doesn't refer to North Americans but to any non-Hispanics, especially of European origin as gringo did not originate in the Americas, but in Spain, where it applied to an even more specific group: Greeks. Yes, gringo is a corruption of Spanish Griego "Greek", which comes from Latin Graecus and ultimately from Greek Graikos.  It originally referred to the incomprehensible babble spoken by foreigners (in 18th century Spain), and later to the foreigners themselves.

The ancient Greeks were similarly disparaging.  They thought all languages other than Greek sounded like the bleating of sheep: "bah-bah-bah" so they referred to non-Greek-speaking foreigners as barbaros.  Anyone who couldn't speak Greek was, obviously, uncivilized which is where we get barbarian.  Some linguists of the past thought this word derived from the Latin barba, "beard".  They were wrong.

Let's return to Spain for a moment. King Charles I (a.k.a. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) reigned from 1500 to 1558 and had a number of Flemish nobles at his court who were very unpopular with the locals.  Due to their notoriety, the name flamenco ("Fleming", "inhabitant of Flanders") was applied to any despised foreigner, especially gypsies.  Thus the characteristic dance of the Spanish gypsies was (and is still) called the flamenco.  Despite many claims to the contrary, the word has nothing to do with the flamingo bird.

The peregrine falcon takes its name from its migratory habit.  Peregrinus is latin for "foreigner" and derives from per- ("through") and ager ("field"), implying "one who wanders through the fields".  Our word pilgrim is a much-altered form of peregrinus

Very often, a foreign nationality is used simply to imply strangeness. Thus, English children play French cricket. Needless to say, this is not cricket as played in France, for the French simply do not play cricket. It is a very informal version of cricket which has no wickets, the object of the game being to hit the batsman's legs with the ball. The word French is used to indicate that this is an odd variant of cricket. Similarly, the French nut is the walnut. This is more understandable when one realizes that the word walnut itself means "foreign nut".

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Last Updated 05/15/02 07:57 PM