What is a guiri?

LAST UPDATED: 3 Jul, 2011 @ 18:48
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What is a guiri?

We all know the term guiri, or, if not, we should – it’s what the Spanish call us foreigners.  But is the term good or bad; positive or negative; affectionate or nasty? Paul Whitelock investigates.

What is a guiri? According to the Real Academía Española, protector and arbiter of the Spanish language, the word is an abbreviation of the Basque word guiristino – Spanish cristino – the description applied by the Carlists to the supporters of Queen Cristina during the civil wars of the 19th Century.  They were considered ‘outsiders’, or ‘others’ – hence the possible link to today’s current usage.

Since the tourism boom in Spain, which began in the 1960s, the word guiri has been increasingly used for foreign tourists and immigrants, especially from northern Europe.  If you are a native Spanish speaker, say from Latin America, you are not a guiri, however.

Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, tells us that a guiri is a local colloquial term used exclusively in Spain, not in Mexico or any other Spanish-speaking countries, to refer to foreign tourists on package holidays on the Spanish Mediterranean coast. The stereotype of a guiri is a sunburned, fair-haired and skinned English-speaking white person wearing shorts, socks, sandals, sunglasses and with a camera in full view. It is used to name foreign tourists in general, regardless of their ethnicity. For example, Japanese tourists can be guiris too, as well as African-Americans. The amalgam of wealthy, idle, and clueless is without a doubt the most common characteristic of a guiri.

According to Wikipedia it is important to distinguish a guiri from an immigrant, or an ‘expat’. Guiri is applied only for tourism reasons.  Not in my experience.  I am resident in Spain and I and my fellow British, German, Dutch and Swedish immigrants are all known (affectionately) as guiris. I certainly don’t find that it is necessarily a derogatory term, although it can be – it all depends on the context.

A guiri is not just a foreigner, it is a plainly obvious foreigner that is subject to ridicule, much like the Mexican term gringo.

The writer Ben Webster defines guiri as “a word applied by Spanish people to foreigners in Spain, but not to all foreigners, mostly just those from Western European countries, the States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand… you know, us pallid blondies.  There is a definite element of looking like a total tourist involved too (sunglasses, sunburn, camera round neck, silly sunhat, sandals), though this isn’t essential.

“A question that worried me for a long time was whether or not it is actually a bad thing to be called a guiri. I remember how Marina’s sister once called me guiri not long after Marina and I had started going out, and I took huge offence.”

Webster recalls that, at a recent party, old friends of Marina’s were bandying the word around all evening and it didn’t bother him at all. He goes on: “In fact, I’ve started using the word quite a lot myself to talk about my fellow foreigners. Being called a guiri, I’ve discovered, is only a bad thing if it is said with spite (which is only about 20% of the time). Usually, however, it’s a friendly kind of a word; not nearly as demeaning as the way we Brits call the French ‘frogs’.

“I think I am a bit of a guiri (despite my best efforts to ‘Spanish-ify’ myself), especially in summer when I don much of the requisite kit (camera, shades, silly hat), but nowadays I really don’t mind in the least. Does the guiri label bother you?” asks Webster in conclusion.

Well, no, it doesn’t bother me in the least, because I am assured by the many Spaniards that I have spoken to about this, that, if they say it to your face, it’s definitely affectionate.  If they refer to other guiris’ behaviour or habits or tastes in a dismissive manner behind their backs, that’s another matter altogether.

Nowadays certain words are offensive if a minority group says they are offended by them, even if the user of the word is not meaning to be offensive. So according to the norms of present-day political correctness, if someone is not offended then that word isn’t offensive. But if it turns out that the majority of us foreigners do mind it, then it would be deemed to be offensive.  The actual meaning of the word is not normally the problem, it’s its history.  For example, ‘black’ is OK but a Latin-derived term for ‘black’ is not. Similarly, ‘Pakistani’ is acceptable, yet not in its abbreviated form.

I sometimes refer to my Spanish pals as my spic friends.  I don’t mean it other than affectionately, but I know I need to be careful!

As with all slang words, if unsure, don’t use!

25 COMMENTS

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  1. Many Spaniards think it’s derogatory as they don’t use it when a “guiri” is present. When my neighbour’s son used the word in front of my Sister his Mom gave him a clip around the ear. Reading the above guiris should be ok. to use the term “Daygo” for Spaniards!

  2. Interesting alternative views from Philip Queen, Niko and Anita Pepino (is that her real name?). Perhaps they live in areas where there are lots of immigrants and little integration.
    I stand by my views as expressed in the article and backed up by others when I did the research.

  3. I speak Spanish reasonably well and had a chat with the former mayor of the village where we live because he had referred to me as a “guiri” in a speech he had made at my birthday party about 18 months ago. I specifically asked him about the way he had used the word.

    He assured me that the way he had used “guiri” was completely without any ill intentions. That was confirmed subsequently by other Spanish villagers whom I know well in separate conversations.

    I agree with Paul Whitelock on this one. Sure, the word may be used in a derogatory way but it also has a completely benign meaning.

  4. The term ‘guiri’ we are talking about actually comes from the word ‘guirigay’ which means a language that is difficult to understand.

    The word ‘guiri’ that you say comes from ‘Guiristino’ is just a shortened version of that word and is not related to the term we are discussing.

    Anyway, when I first came to Spain (15 years ago) it bothered me when I was called a guiri, now I just ignore it and although I don’t like it, I know that nearly everybody who uses it does so without any type of hostility, are ignorant or just are so used to hearing it that they think it’s normal and so use it themselves.

  5. I sometimes refer to myself as a guiri when I’m in Spanish company, and we all have a good laugh. For example, at 1 a.m. when the party is just warming up, I say “I’m going home to bed now, I’m just a guiri and can’t keep up with you!”.

    I haven’t heard it used with hostility in the village where I live. It’s just used to describe white non-Hispanics. It’s not what you say but the way that you say it …

    I’ve also heard us called something that sounds like “los pilis” – anyone else come across that?

  6. Nice viewpoint Paul. On the coast there is a slightly different conotation on the term Guiri…………namely that of a foreigner (English, who is a regular supporter of Malaga Football Club)………there’s an estimated 2,000 who regularily attend the matches (even more now that the Sheik is buying all and sundry). Local bar owners around the football ground often kick out locals to accommodate the ‘guiri’s’ when arriving on match day knowing they will spend on average 50 euros each at the bar………so one one level, economically, they’re welcome, but to locals it’s a different story………..

    affectionatley

    Paul

  7. Fascinating. If I was Spanish, never having experienced a proper industrial revolution and being enticed, now merrily blinking and consumer-borracho into the faecebook ‘n movil light of the ongoing technical one, whilst being eurobeaten and bashed like some reluctant ox into one english academy after another I might well have myself an inferiority complex and a deep need to normalise the use of the perjorative ‘guiri’ (don’t fool yourself) against those of a boiled hue I defensively considered as gutless, rich and tonto. Racism it is said can not be defined as such where employed against the actual gradient of cultural domination.So disfrute! Many of the smiling, not to say smug comments above seem in one way or another to bear this out whether intentionally or not. If in spite of the apparent ‘richness’ of my culture, cristianos v moros, easter maso-fests, wha-eva.. I wasn’t able to see how it is that the saxons still maintained their monopoly on the whip hand in this world then I might certainly need to dress them down, as it were for being such cretins, underneath all their success, so as to commit the henious faux pas of wearing socks under their sandals in, erm, winter.. But great news for guiris — to be a ‘forester'(any Iberian non mallorquin who goes to the island to sell his labour) in Mallorca is the very bottom of the shitpit.. come to the island and feel the benefit.

  8. The word guiri has different connotations and in general is not despective, though if someone is angry can call you guiri in a bad way, but I repit that is NOT despective. It’s used to describe these English stereotyped, and also German people with these characteristics because for a Spanish there aren’t a lot of physical differences between an English and a German. For the rest of foreigners like Japanese is less used, in my opinion they are rarely named guiris.
    To the former user that commented here, Spain has a lot of problems and it’s true that we have an inferiority complex, I also had it until I travelled into Europe and the world. Then I discovered that Spain as a country has a lot of,things to improve (I already knew it) but there are good and bad people everywhere, and Europe or the world is not better than Spain in that way. For example when I was in Munich I was in the subway and some people that didn’t knew the others started talking and laughing about me and my country while I was talking Spanish with my German partner to help him because he was going to fail. Then I stared at them like I’m understanding you and they apologized.
    I tell you this anecdote to help you that there are topics everywhere and you have to realize that it’s are only topics.

  9. PW – I wear sandals, proper trekking sandals all year round, except when it’s pouring with rain or there’s some serious snow around – I don’t like smelly feet and wearing shoes is’nt good for the health of feet anyway.
    FYI – the Celts,Greeks and Romans wore sandals and did a fair bit of marching around Europe and Asia. The ‘brogue’ (bad Gaelic) is the Celtic example, slit to let any water out and help the foot to dry naturally. ‘Foot rot’ was the result of wearing army boots totally unsuitable for many climates.

  10. My Spanish students have used it in a slightly demeaning way. Also, if it’s a term mainly used for the fair-skinned tourists, then don’t you think it’s implied that being tanned, or having the “right” shade of skin is somehow superior? This is of course ironic as many, many Spaniards have white, and even fair, skin.

  11. Was married to a mapdrileno untili he died if anyone referred to me as a guiri he would explode so don’t believe posts that say it is affectionate it is not I know I lived in Madrid Galicia and gran Canadian and in all these places it is derogatory . That is why my husband preferred England he said people were more tolerant here.He is buried here

  12. I haven’t met a single British person in Spain who likes be called “guiri.” In my opinion, if a group of people do not want to be given a label or name like this then it should not be given, even if those saying the word believe it is ok to do so.

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