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What is a guiri?

I had a strange experience the other day: I ascended to my roof terrace to take the afternoon Barcelona sun, and someone shouted at me. He was one of a group of young guys standing on another roof terrace, about a football pitch away, and what he shouted was: ‘¡Ei! ¿¿Eres un guiri??’.

Now, guiri is a curious word. There is no one definition of it. People here in Spain seem to use it to refer to tourists and foreigners, but different sources (among my friends and acquaintances) have distinct ideas about the precise compass of the term. The consensus seems to be that guiri is most appropriately used to refer to non-Mediterranean, non-Eastern Europeans and North Americans; in other words, people from rich, pale-skinned countries.

Some people think that guiri really just means a foreigner, but when asked if a Greek man would be a guiri, my informants were unsure but tended towards no. Opinion was fairly evenly divided on Russians. What is clear, however, is that having a darker skin tone or coming from a Spanish-speaking country precludes you from guirihood (for these categories there are other catch-all terms, most of them insalubrious in the extreme).

So I looked up the etymology. The first explanation I came across thrilled me: it posited that guiri came from the word guirigay. The Spanish Academy glosses guirigay thus:

1. m. Gritería y confusión que resulta cuando varios hablan a la vez o cantan desordenadamente.

2. m. coloq. Lenguaje oscuro y difícil de entender.

Rough translation: – 1) Shouting and confusion which ensues when various people speak at the same time or sing rowdily; 2) Obscure and difficult to understand language.

But the great thing about guiriguay is that it is onomatopoeic! In other words, it reproduces the effect is seeks to describe, a confused babel (another puportedly onomatopoeic word, by the way) of sounds.

According to the etymology that I came across, guiri derives from guirigay because foreign people babble incomprehensibly. The reason that this thrilled me was that the word barbarian has precisely the same origin: “from L. barbaria “foreign country,” from Gk. barbaros “foreign, strange, ignorant,” from PIE base *barbar- echoic of unintelligible speech of foreigners (cf. Skt. barbara- “stammering,” also “non-Aryan”).”

Echoic of unintelligible speech of foreigners!

(A counter-part of this is the Russian word for German, which is derived from their word for ‘mute’; this is due to the fact that Russia’s neighbours have always spoken broadly inter-intelligible languages, until you get to Germany, where, to a slavic-language-speaker, they (or you?) might as well be mute…)

But I’m afraid I have to disappoint you. Guiri does not come from guirigay. The ever-authoritative Royal Spanish Academy tells us that guiri is in fact an abbreviation of the Basque word guiristino, Christian, which was used in the civil wars of the Nineteenth Century to refer to the supporters of Queen Cristina, and from there came to mean any uniformed upholder of law and order. It does not tell us, however, how it came to mean sun-burnt Swede, but we could imagine that, for the Basques, the supporters of Queen Cristina were all foreigners (and, in fact, that most foreigners were supporters of Queen Cristina).

Another suggestion is that guiri comes from the Arabic word kafir, meaning unbeliever and by extension foreigner. In Morocco, apparently, the word gauri is used to describe the French and tourists generally, and from here it was adopted into Spanish, when the post-Franco tourism boom gave rise to the necessity for a gently pejorative term for corpulent English holidaymakers.

So there you have it. In any case, I must admit that I dislike being thought of, or rudely addressed, as a guiri. I accept that there is not much, to a Spanish person at least, that distinguishes me from a North American, either culturally, linguistically or genetically. But a Finnish person? The truth is I resent being lumped into a general category, as if the differences between us were irrelevant in the face of such overwhelming identity.

There is indeed a tendency in street-level Spanish to compartmentalise people according to the widest possible criteria; at least guiri is mildly affectionate – many of the other terms are not. But that is another subject. I guess I will just have to resign myself to the status that my blonde hair, blue eyes and appalling accent assign me.

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