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Is ‘Gypsy’ a slur?

Q: In the quilting world, there’s a popular design named “Gypsy Wife.” When a woman recently posted a photo of a nice one she made to a Facebook page, she was lambasted for using the term “Gypsy.” Because of the complaints, she removed the photo. Is “Gypsy” a slur?

A: This is a complicated and sensitive question.

Some people who identify themselves as ethnically Roma (also called Romani or Romany) are offended by “Gypsy,” and most standard dictionaries have reservations about using it to mean Roma. On the other hand, some Roma people don’t mind being called “Gypsies” and others even embrace the term.

What’s more, the uncapitalized “gypsy” has meanings that are ultimately derived from the original sense but no longer have ethnic or racial associations. And those uses are not regarded as pejorative, at least in dictionaries.

Our conclusions are that that “Gypsy” (with a capital “G”) is offensive to some people, and should be used with caution if at all. It should be avoided entirely if any ethnic connection is implied; instead, the words “Roma” or “Romani” should be used. Meanwhile, the non-ethnic uses of “gypsy” (with a lowercase “g”) should not be condemned. Here’s a summary of the word’s history.

The earliest form of the word in English, which the Oxford English Dictionary dates to the 1530s, was “Gipcyan,” an abbreviated version of “Egyptian.” At that time, as John Ayto writes in his Dictionary of Word Origins (2011), “it was widely thought that the Romany people originated in Egypt.”

They didn’t, as we now know. A genome study in Current Biology, December 2012, shows that the founding population of the Roma people originated in northern India 1,500 years ago and rapidly migrated into Europe through the Balkans, with some genetic input along the way from the Near or Middle East. The Romani language is descended from Sanskrit, in which romá is the plural of rom (man or husband).

So the “Gypsies” were mislabeled from the start, since they didn’t come from Egypt. And many early appearances of “Gypsy” in English were highly pejorative because, as OED citations show, these itinerant foreigners were often viewed with contempt and mistrust, suspected of crimes, and driven away. Here are the OED’s earliest examples:

“The Kinges Maiestie aboute a twelfmoneth past gave a pardonne to a company of lewde personnes within this Realme calling themselves Gipcyans for a most Shamfull and detestable murder.” (From a letter written by Thomas Cromwell on Dec. 5, 1537.)

“It is ordayned agaynste people callynge themselves Egypcyans, that no such persons be suffred to come within this realme.” (From The Newe Boke of Justyces of the Peas, 1538, by the judge and legal scholar Anthony Fitzherbert.)

“Hee wandring … in the manner of a Gipson … was taken, and trust vp for a roge [trussed up for a rogue].” (From Martins Months Minde, 1589, an attack by an unknown writer on the pseudonymous pamphleteer known as Martin Marprelate.)

The OED defines this ethnic sense of “Gypsy” as “a member of a wandering race (by themselves called Romany), of Hindu origin, which first appeared in England about the beginning of the 16th cent. and was then believed to have come from Egypt.”

But the word very soon acquired transferred meanings, the OED says. In the 1600s it was used to mean a man who was “a cunning rogue,” the dictionary says, and for a woman who was “cunning, deceitful, fickle, or the like.”

In later use, Oxford adds, “gypsy” (by this time lowercased) was used playfully rather than contemptuously for a woman, “and applied esp. to a brunette.”  All those uses have died out.

But since then “gypsy” (also spelled “gipsy”) has acquired several more meanings, none of them pejorative. Most date from around the mid-20th century, and here we’ll paraphrase the many definitions in standard dictionaries:

(1) Someone who’s free-spirited or doesn’t live in one place for long.

(2) A person with a career or way of life that’s itinerant or unconventional, especially a part-time or temporary college faculty member or a performer in the chorus line of a theatrical production.

(3) An unlicensed, nonunionized, or independent operator, particularly a trucker or cab driver but also including plumber and other trades.

We don’t think any of those three senses of “gypsy” are offensive, though undoubtedly some could be used in a dismissive manner. At any rate, dictionaries attach no such warning labels to them.

[Note: On July 4, 2019, a reader of the blog wrote us to say that she is a Roma and considers every use of “gypsy,” ethnic or otherwise, uppercase or lowercase, “a hurtful racial slur.” But on Dec. 22, 2019, another reader wrote us to say that he is Romani and “No true Roma actually care nor do we find the term offensive.”]

Dictionaries also include without a caution the use of the lowercase term for a member of a traditionally itinerant group that’s unrelated to the Roma. This definition would include people known as “Travelers” in Ireland, Scotland, and the US, who are not descended from the Roma and do not speak Romani.

However, the original, ethnic meaning of “Gypsy” is another matter. Nowhere does the OED, an etymological dictionary based on historical evidence, label “Gypsy” as offensive or contemptuous. But many standard dictionaries do have reservations about the term.

American Heritage labels “Gypsy” as “often offensive” in only one sense, when it means “Romani.” Merriam-Webster labels it “sometimes offensive.” And Webster’s New World says it’s “now often considered offensive, the word Rom (pl., Roma) or Romani being preferred.”

As for the online standard British dictionaries, Oxford and Cambridge have no reservations. Macmillan labels the term “offensive” when it means “a Romany.” Longman says “most” Gypsies and Collins says “some” prefer to be called Romanies.

So the apparent consensus among lexicographers is that as an ethnic term, “Gypsy” should be used with caution if at all.

Even the use of the lowercase “gypsy” to refer to theatrical performers came under attack last year, according to an article in the New York Times on April 20, 2018.

The writer, Michael Paulson, noted that the use of “gypsy” to refer to the performers in a chorus line apparently derives from “the fact that until the early 20th century, many American actors proudly earned a living by traveling from city to city.”

“To many,” he wrote, the word “is pejorative, no matter the context.” He quoted Carol Silverman, a professor of anthropology at the University of Oregon, as saying, “It is an ethnic slur.”

He also quoted Petra Gelbart, a curator at RomArchive, a digital archive: “The fact that the term Gypsy is so often used to denote free-spirited or traveling lifestyles has real-life repercussions for actual Romany people,” reducing them to “ridiculous stereotypes that can make it difficult to find employment or social acceptance.”

On the other side, Paulson cited Laurence Maslon, a professor at New York University and author of the book Broadway to Main Street (2018), as saying that to stage performers, “It was a badge of honor, not a badge of shame, that you were itinerant.”

And Tom Viola, executive director of the nonprofit organization Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, said, “In our theatrical community, ‘the gypsy’ is beloved.” He said the organization is sticking with “Gypsy of the Year” as the name of its annual fund-raising performance.

As you may know, the issue of Gypsy persecution is much more prominent in Europe than in the US. In a 2012 report, the Roma and Travelers division of the Council of Europe had this to say about terminology:

“The term ‘Roma/Gypsies’ was used for many years by the Council of Europe, before the decision was taken to no longer use it in official texts in 2005.” The move was made principally because of objections by international Roma associations, the Council says, who regarded it as “an alien term, linked with negative, paternalistic stereotypes which still pursue them in Europe.”

But the report added that “in some countries, the term ‘Gypsies’ or its national equivalent has no negative connotations, is accepted by the people concerned and may occasionally be more appropriate.”

One organization that is not fazed by the term “Gypsy” is the 130-year-old Gypsy Lore Society, founded in Britain in the 19th century and now headquartered in the US.

The society publishes books, a newsletter, and the scholarly journal Romani Studies, which features articles on “the cultures of groups traditionally known as Gypsies as well as Travelers and other peripatetic groups.”

“Much of the material published on Gypsies and Travelers on the Internet,” the society cautions on its website, “is misleading due either to stereotyping, antiquated perspectives on ethnicity or culture, poor scholarship, excessive political correctness or other biases and, in some cases, outright fabrication.”

As for the striking quilt pattern called “Gypsy Wife,” there’s no special significance to the name, according to its creator, the Australian quilt designer Jen Kingwell.

In an interview at a quilt show in Austin, Texas, on Feb. 21, 2015, she said, “I have no idea why it’s called that. I find naming quilt patterns about the hardest thing ever.”

Personally, we think it’s an imaginative name and we find no offense in it. The design is certainly free-spirited and unconventional, though not unlicensed (it’s copyrighted).

[Update, April 16, 2021: A reader informs us that the name of Jen Kingwell’s quilt pattern has since been changed to “Wanderer’s Wife.”]

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