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Foreign tourist and Civil Guard officer: The many meanings of the word ‘guiri’

While it is commonly used in Spain to describe a certain type of traveler, it has other definitions stretching back to the 19th century and the Carlist Wars

A foreign tourist in Spain.
A foreign tourist in Spain. Getty Images

Today the word guiri is commonly used in Spain to describe a foreign tourist who struggles to understand the local culture. But the word has many meanings.

This particular definition of guiri came about thanks to a man named Gary Bedell. Bedell was born in Canada in 1954 and learned Spanish at a young age. He joined Canada’s diplomatic service in 1988, and in 1992, he oversaw the Canadian pavilion at the Universal Exposition of Seville (Expo '92) in the southern Spanish region of Andalusia.

The word was first used in the 19th century in the context of the Carlist Wars

During the six months the Expo was on at the Isla de la Cartuja, an island in the Guadalquivir River Seville, the Canadian diplomat got to know the city. He discovered Andalusian beers and took long strolls across the regional capital. Bedell has now lived in Spain for more than 20 years. In an interview, he claimed “Andalusians have everything.”

While Gary is his birth name, he became known as Guiri in Seville. Bedell took on the nickname and used it in his favor – for a while it was even part of the name of his travel website on Spain, El rincón del guiri (or The guiri’s corner.)

A guiri is not just a foreigner, because foreigners can also be immigrants and we do not called them that. A guiri is a foreign tourist who stands out because of the way they visit a city. It can also apply to a foreigner who has lived in the country for years, for example as a retiree.

Whether or not this use of the word is derogatory was the subject of a recent Twitter debate, with the user Alex Rawlings arguing it perpetuates unfair stereotypes. According to Rawlings, the Spanish use the word guiri to describe tourists who travel across Spain eating “fluorescent paella” and going to bars no local would ever enter. In other words, he argued, the word is used to describe someone who is not one of us, and will never will be.

Carlist Wars

But the roots of the word go much further back than Gary Bedell. Guiri was first used in the 19th century in the context of the Carlist Wars, a series of civil wars fought between the Carlists, the followers of the Infante Carlos, and the Cristinos, the supporters of Queen María Cristina de Borbón.

The Basque Carlists called their adversaries – the Liberals – guiris. Although some argue the word is related to the Turkish gauri (meaning infidel, foreigner), it is more commonly believed to be derived from the Basque word grisitino, meaning Cristina, in other words, a supporter of María Cristina. This definition of a guiri as a soldier on the opposing side appeared in literature at the end of the 19th century.

In the 20th century, it was slang to describe the Civil Guard. By the mid 20th century it changed to describe a “foreign tourist”

Emilia Pardo Bazán was one of the first people to use the word in a book. In her novel, Un viaje de novios (or A Honeymoon), published in 1881, a Basque man uses the word guiri to contemptuously describe a Liberal. Benito Pérez Galdós, another 19th century novelist, also included the world in his 1898 novel called Zumalacárregui.

This meaning of guiri, which has unquestionable political significance, entered the dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy in 1925. The word was defined as: “A name which, during the civil wars of the 19th century, the Carlists gave to the supporters of Queen Cristina, and later to all of the Liberals, and especially the soldiers of the government.”

Other meanings

In the 20th century, guiri became a colloquial word to describe a member of the Civil Guard. By the mid-20th century the word guiri had changed to mean a “foreign tourist,” a definition that was included in Spanish dictionaries at the end of the century.

The word guiri is also used to describe a type of shrub found in the southern Spanish city of Almería, which in other parts of Spain is called retamo or espinillo. This definition, which is rarely used, is a reminder of the cowboy movies shot in Almería in the 1960s, in which, incidentally, a number of guiris performed.

While it is true that everyone uses the word guiri in their own way and with their own connotation, it is difficult to give it an entirely positive meaning. The Twitter users who responded to Rawlings’ message, however, argued that guiri is not an insult. 

We say guiri with love. We don't go to “guiri” bars because they’re expensive and bad quality but central as fuck. We also don’t go to guiri bars when we visit other countries because they’re tourist traps.

Guiris: They destroy our landscapes, push out locals from their neighborhoods, act uncivilly, increase housing prices, it is partly their fault that we are exploited in precarious jobs related to tourism etc.

Also guiris: Spanish Word "guiri" is a problem :(

The word “tourist” is not insulting, but if we say that a restaurant or a show is “for tourists” we are saying that the experience lacks authenticity and is overpriced. Indeed the recent touristphobia phenomena means many tourists prefer to be called travelers. Given Spain’s dependence on the tourism industry, we would be foolish not to open a spot in our hearts for guiris.

English version by Asia London Palomba.

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