Inspired by the “Did gypsies really abduct Adam Smith?” thread on GQ, it reminded me that many sources claim ethnic Roma view the term “Gypsy” as derogatory. Then again many sources also claim “Indians” should be called Native Americans and that “blacks” should be called African-Americans. I know many members of both ethnic groups, and they prefer to be called “Indians” and “blacks”. Do the Roma truly dislike the term “gypsy”? If so when did they stop using the term, if they ever used it among themselves?
Like so many things, it varies by location; it also varies by which Roma you’re talking about; it varies by “it’s ok when I say it, but not when others say it”. Most Spanish Romanís will use gitano; they don’t expect payos to know the word “romaní” and some think that using it in Spanish sounds too much like an anthropology documentary rather than like normal conversation.
Like so many other words, how you say it makes a world of difference; a mother calling her roaming toddler with “ven p’acá, gitano” (c’mere, you gypsy) wouldn’t be considered offensive by most people, but someone using it to mean “thief” - you don’t need to be Roma to find that offensive. It’s completely anecdotal, but I’m currently in Seville, which has a very-large Romaní population, and I noticed that when Shakira’s song “Gypsy” came out, local radio stations played it exclusively in English. I asked my brothers, and in Northern Spain (where the Gypsy population is lower and much less visible) it was being played in Spanish. Check out the lyrics: she uses it to mean “a roamer, someone who doesn’t stay put” but she also talks about “stealing everything you have” - oops.
A girlfriend of mine’s mother was Roma and she and her daughter both referred to themselves as gypsies. So now you’ve got one anecdotal piece of evidence that you can use to wrap this up.
I once heard an older woman interviewed on radio claim that she was a zigenare (the Swedish equivalent of gypsy), explaining that rom means a male person.
What about words like gypped that most people don’t even know came from Gypsy anymore?
I didn’t even know that word and will now hie me to m-w to find out what it means…
ETA: offensive, but people would first, have to know the word and second, have to know where it comes from.
“Gypped” is very common in American English (I’d be surprised if a native speaker didn’t know the word), but I don’t think most people are aware of its derivation.
ETA: And there seems to be no direct evidence that “gypped” is derived from “gypsy,” although it is probable.
The Finnish equivalent of “Gypsy”, “mustalainen”, is considered by most Finnish Roma to be slightly derogatory, although it was previously the commonly used term and they will still (sometimes grudgingly) accept it if it is used in a non-inflammatory manner. (By comparison, non-Roma were often called “valkolainen” by the Roma. Musta = black, valkoinen = white in Finnish, so approximately “blackie” and “whitey”…) The “Gypsy” equivalent comes up in a lot of Finnish terms which reference lying or dishonesty, so obviously that term strikes a sour note with many. However, “mustalainen” is still a term that the Roma often use among themselves to refer to themselves (also “tumma” or “kaalo/kaaleet”, both meaning “dark”).
Kind of (but only a very little bit) like the discussion about the term “nigger” as used by white people about black people vs. by black people about black people. Officially, Finnish Roma tend to want to be referred to as “romani”. The really derogatory term is “manne” - along with “neekeri” for black people and “ryssä” for Russians, it’s considered one of the worst negative terms for ethnic groups.
Is every Gypsy Romani?
I’ve heard, like with Eskimo and Inuit, that not everyone called ‘Gypsy’ can properly be called ‘Romani’ and, of course, calling someone by the wrong adjectival form is cause for offense.
Hungarian gypsies, or at least some of them, seem to have no problem referring to themselves as “cigány” in Hungarian and “gypsy” in English. I attended a gypsy music festival in Budapest and the performers proudly and enthusiastically used both words to refer to themselves and the audience (which was almost entirely ethnic gypsies).
For a long time when I was a kid, I didn’t even know that gypsies were real. I read of them in old stories, and saw them in Disney movies, and thought that they were fairy-tale creatures like elves and trolls and unicorns. Only later did I learn of the Roma.
I think that “gypped” is one of those words like “niggardly”, which is/are falling out of use because enough people don’t know what it means or where it came from that the chance to give inadvertant offense is much greater than the chance to communicate a clear meaning.
I’ve only ever heard the word “gyp” used as slang. Also, the cite above indicates that the word likely did derive from “gypsy”, in which case, the comparison to niggardly doesn’t work. The first cite in OED is from 1889, but it doesn’t give the quote, just a cite. The first quote is from a dictionary of criminal slang in 1914. If the word got started in the underworld, I’d imagine that finding a definite etymology would be difficult.
As an aside, I first started avoiding the word about 15 years ago when I heard someone correct themselves in conversation. They had mentioned that they had been “jewed” by someone else, realized they were being offensive, and changed it to “gypped”.
I once knew quite well a Hungarian–partly Jewish by birth (he intimated), and partly Gypsy–in my building. who I listened to playing rock guitar quite well. Now, Jewish and Gypsy musicians in Hungary have almost a “classic” tradition, perhaps the way Blacks do in Jazz. (There are interesting sociological reasons for that comparison as well.)
When my father, a Hungarian by birth, came to visit me, I introduced my acquaintance in jest as a master Jewish-Gypsy guitar player. Later on he told me he was unspeakably furious to be referred to as belonging to such disgusting classes.
Nava, that’s likely a case of Shakira’s translations not being word for word exact (as was discussed in another thread). The Spanish version doesn’t use gitana for the later meaning, but does for the first meaning (roamer, doesn’t stay put). The English version is the one that specifically mentions stealing clothes.