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!