A Gringo Like Me, ad hominum, American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD), Athenians, Attica, Boeotia, Boeotians, Christian Slater, Cratinus, Dicky Jones, El Gringo, Epaminondas, Get The Gringo, Graecus, Graikos, Gran Torino, Gregory Peck, griego, gringo, Gulf of Corinth, Gunfight At Red Sands, Hesiod, hijabs, It's all Greek to me, Latin, loners, man with no name, Mel Gibson, Middle Easterners, Mill Creek Entertainment, Muslims, Old Gringo, outsiders, Oxford English Dictionary (OED), Pelopidas, Pindar, Plutarch, spaghetti westerns, Thebes, Wikipedia
I recently bought a DVD box set with twenty spaghetti westerns (thirty-two hours worth), dating from 1963 to 1978. The DVD was released through Mill Creek Entertainment. It cost less than ten dollars, not even a fistful. A couple nights ago, I watched the first one: “Gunfight At Red Sands” (1964).
The movie itself was forgettable, but its theme song made me rub my scruffy chin. The tune, sung by Dicky Jones, is called “A Gringo Like Me.” It’s chorus line offered a twisted kind of logic, just twisted enough to make sense to me: “There’s just one kind of man that you can trust / that’s a dead man / or a gringo like me.” You can listen to it here: [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G02b5pfnJYk ].
What made me stop and think was the word gringo. I’m a wordsmith kind of a guy, and I can’t help but wonder about the origin of words compared to their present usage. It turns out that gringo has an interesting past. It turns up in quite a lot of movies also. Remember Old Gringo (1989) with Gregory Peck?
How about Mel Gibson’s new movie, Get The Gringo (2012) [ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ku_AOOdvW8 ]?
Then, there’s the new Christian Slater movie, El Gringo (2012) [ http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1990216/ ].
To understand the word gringo, you have to return with me now to the days of the ancient Boeotians (bee-oh’-shuns). The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines Boeotia (bee-oh’-shuh) as “a district of ancient Greece proverbial for the stupidity of its inhabitants.” The OED further demeans a Boeotian as “dull, stupid; a stupid clown, a ‘thick-head.'” The OED shaves its customers with a well-tended razor.
The original Greek term for the “ethnic designation of a Boeotian tribe that settled in Italy,” according to the newest American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (AHD), is Graikos. The Latin word for these Boeotian settlers became Graecus. In Spain, the term Graecus became griego. The word gringo, per the AHD, is “possibly [an] alteration of griego.” This would connect the Latin American or American Spanish term gringo back to the tribe of Boeotians who resettled in Italy from Greece.
The AHD defines Boeotia much more kindly than the lofty OED as “an ancient region of Greece north of Attica and the Gulf of Corinth. The cities of the region formed the Boeotian League in the sixth century BC but were usually under the dominance of Thebes.”
The tale of “A Gringo Like Me” now leads us to the phrase: “It’s all Greek to me.” This sentence, as defined by the AHD, refers to the word Greek in an informal manner, to “something that is unintelligible.” If you’re in middle school and a Nobel Prize winning physicist walks by with his buddy arguing the existence of a holofractographic universe, you’re probably going to think “Dude! That was like all Greek to me.”
At dictionary.reverso.net/spanish-english/griego, there is an example offered of the Spanish sentence “para mi es griego,” which translates to: “It’s all Greek to me.” The word gibberish is also included there to describe the Spanish word griego.
The hanging rope seems to lead back to those loco Boeotians who migrated from Greece to Italy. When they arrived in Italy, they were foreigners and unintelligible to the Italians, sort of like mosquitoes buzzing around. Aside from that, the OED outright published them as stupid, dull, clownish and thick-headed.
How did it happen that these people were so looked down upon? The Wikipedia (which can be useful as a guide to more reliable sources) [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boeotia] on Boeotia states (with an actual citation from Cratinus): “The Boeotian people, although they included great men like Pindar, Hesiod, Epaminondas, Pelopidas and Plutarch, were portrayed as proverbially dull by the Athenians (cf. Boeotian ears incapable of appreciating music or poetry and Hog-Boeotians, Cratinus.310).” The article further reveals: “Boeotia came to be proverbial for the stupidity of its inhabitants (OED), probably because of Athens’ proud assertion of its cultural superiority compared to its rural neighbours.”
So, the story we have unfolding here is that the proud (possibly downright snobbish) Athenians deemed the Boeotians stupid and committed the fallacy of Ad Hominum, in which the character of these people was attacked, rendering any of their contributions to society as invalid. This label of simplemindedness stuck to them to the point that when some of the Boeotians migrated to Italy, they were not only considered foreigners and unintelligible but dumb as a boot as well. The Spanish followed the same illogical path with their word griego, and ultimately the pejorative term made it to the Latin Americans, mostly for labeling in their own native tongue Americans or English-speakers as “gringos.”
In a modern sense, I believe, gringo suggests someone who is an outsider within a culture or language and not so much that the person is dimwitted. There are definitely, however, those who see American or English-speaking touristas as gringos in a mean-spirited way, and vice-versa.
In the Italian, mythological culture of spaghetti westerns, where everyone seems untrustworthy, the hero was generally a gringo, an outcast loner, a “man with no name” who was thought of as one taco short of a combo plate by the homeboys (“Dude! He looks Greek to me!”), but as it turns out, he winds up having them all fitted for pine boxes by the end of the movie.
Clint Eastwood devised a heartbreaking spin on this myth in his 2008 masterpiece, Gran Torino, where he portrayed a modern-day gringo in a Detroit neighborhood who doesn’t see himself as the gringo at all. He sees the other 99.9% of people as having co-opted his territory. But, as streetwise and set in his ways as his aging character is, he becomes even wiser before the end of the story.
One bit of wisdom that never seems lost when the credits roll is that there’s just one kind of man that you can trust–a dead man or “a gringo like me!”
06.12.2012: As an interesting aside to the above, I was at a Barnes & Noble Bookstore tonight just walking around and thumbing through books. The store is in the Glendale suburb of Denver, Colorado and many Middle-Easterners frequent the bookstore as well as the Starbucks coffee shop which is attached. The men seem to sit at tables outside the coffee shop to converse with their coffee and smokes while their wives peruse the bookstore.
I overheard two Muslim women (both were wearing hijabs) gossiping about the husband of a friend of theirs. The one lady said to the other, “He’s such a jerk to her … but he’s American. A gringo.” I couldn’t believe I had just heard a Middle-Eastern lady use the term against an American. He may indeed have been a jerk and an outsider from the Muslim culture, and he may have deserved reprimand. There are plenty of American jerks to go around throughout this world.
What stunned me was how universal the term gringo is. Our friends from south of our border use the term against Americans often. Most of the films from Hollywood within which the word is used involve Americans within the Mexican culture. It was a surprise to hear a Middle-Eastern, Muslim lady use the term against an American–in America.
The word has obviously maintained its demeaning tone of social arrogance that began centuries ago in ancient Athens, and today it finds fresh and more widely international usage within an American-west Barnes & Noble bookstore.