Ticos, Gringos… What’s in a Name?

June 10, 2005

This is a revised version of an article publishedin The Tico Times Nov. 5, 1993.ALTHOUGH Shakespeare’s Juliet spoketrue when she said, “A rose by any othername would smell as sweet,” she was referringto given names passed on to us by parentsand ancestors. What others choose tocall us or what we choose to call ourselves isa different matter. To understand what reallylies behind the labels others give us or wegive ourselves, it is useful to look at the originand history of these labels.Many of you may already be aware thatthe origin of the word tico, the affectionatename for Costa Ricans, comes from the diminutive (an endingapplied to a word to indicate small size, youth, familiarity orfondness) -ico, applied to the ending of a to/ta word such asgato/gata (cat). Most often, in order to say “little cat” or “kitten,”a Spanish-speaker will say gatito. Another option, however, is tosay gatico. This ending was and still is used so extensively byCosta Ricans that they came to be known as ticos. It’s an endearingterm, free of the sarcasm and prejudice of racial slurs, and it’swhat they call themselves. Rather like the Oregonian who refersto himself as a “Webfoot,” a Costa Rican is proud to be a tico.What, however, about the word gringo, the name they giveus? They haven’t always called us gringos. Some 40 years back,we were simply machos (only in Costa Rica does this word havethe meaning of “blond” or “North American”). Macho, in fact,can still refer to a U.S. citizen, but gringo has largely replaced it.Despite the fact that in certain parts of the Americas, gringo canmean any foreigner or any speaker of English, most Ticos use itto designate only citizens of the United States.Their sense of it just may be historically accurate. There aretwo vying popular stories about its origin, both involving folksfrom the United States. One theory is that U.S. soldiers, presumablyduring the U.S.-Mexican War, regularly sang the song“Green Grow the Lilacs.” The Mexicans began to identify the soldiersby the first two words of the song, “green grow,” spelledgringo in Spanish.The other theory is that gringo is what the Mexicans at onetime called soldiers from Texas, who wore green uniforms or, asthe Mexicans called them, “green coats.” Spanish pronunciationnaturally converted “green coats” to gringos. At first, the wordreferred only to Texan soldiers, then to Texans, and finally to citizensof the United States. The puzzling thing about this theory isthat it is doubtful the soldiers would refer to themselves as “greencoats,” so why would a Mexican would be saying “green coat” inEnglish in the first place?Some linguists believe the term is too widespread to haveoriginated so recently, and that it may date back to at least 16thcenturySpain. At that time, foreigners were called griegos(Greeks – reminiscent of our expression, “It’s Greek to me.”).This is found, in fact, in Cervantes’ “Don Quixote.” Thus, theword griego, over time, evolved to gringo.Whether any of these theories is true is anyone’s guess.Whatever the truth, the word’s presumed origins are anything butfriendly, and to this day it is an insulting term in Mexico. Whetherit is pejorative or not in the mouths of Ticos seems to depend moreon the attitude of the speakers and the tone in which they say itthan on the word itself. If they don’t like us, it has a sarcastic edge,something hanging on the edge of, but not quite, a slur. If they dolike us, and I believe a great many do, it is a convenient and sometimesaffectionate way to distinguish us from other foreigners.This brings us back to the original point: What’s in a name?Ticos don’t usually refer to us as americanos because, after all,they, being from Central America, are also Americans.Sometimes, they may call us norteamericanos, but Mexicans andCanadians are also North Americans. The most correct term isestadounidense, but nobody seems to use it much. What, then, arethey to call us if not gringos?The real issue, perhaps, is not what they call us, but what wecall ourselves. We are rather like the Sioux Native Americans,whose word for themselves meant “the people.” We don’tacknowledge that other people in the Americas exist. We don’teven have a word like estadounidense (Unitedstatesian?). We aresimply Americans, the one and only. This is probably because it iswhat the English called us during colonial times, and now we aresimply stuck with the term. What we must consider, however, isthat our name for ourselves, “Americans,” strikes people fromother parts of the American continent as arrogant.What’s in a name? I leave the answer up to you. As for me,when Ticos ask me what my nationality is, I never say I’mAmerican. Sometimes I say I’m estadounidense. More and more,I find myself saying I’m gringa. I don’t know. I’ve grown ratherfond of the word.

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