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Social Justice Synonyms #22: “Gypped/Gypsy”

“We had over twelve hundred dollars when we started, but we got gyped [sic] out of it all in two days.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby

Welcome to the 22nd segment of Social Justice Synonyms, a column featured at The Talon that discusses harmful and oppressive language and what we can do to avoid using it.

This week’s words are “Gypped” and “Gypsy.” The first is a word used to describe being the victim of scam or fraud; the second is a derogatory moniker frequently used to describe the Romani people.

Like the revolting term “Jewed,” to be “Gypped” is be to cheated or scammed. Unlike the term “Jewed,” however, “Gypped” has become such an internalized part of our lexicon that it is usually uttered without ill-intent or sensitivity for its etymology. A friend of mine once remarked that, having never seen the word appear in print, its relation to the word “Gypsy” had never occurred to him. Bestselling author Carol Higgins Clark cannot employ the same excuse.

Because the word “Gypped” has been distanced from its history and its parent word “Gypsy” is so normalized, its use remains ubiquitous. I hear it in casual conversation with alarming frequency. To be sure, the derogatory nature of the word “Gypped” is not a case of insisting upon an etymological connection that doesn’t exist. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word is “perhaps short for GIPSY n.” The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology (in less speculative language) notes that “Gypped” is “probably derived from the colloquial shortening of Gypsy.” We should assume that the word errs on the side of racist, not least because etymological tracing seems to suggest this, but also because the term is used to describe being the victim of behaviour continually attributed to the Romanies in racist stereotypes.

Even worse than the verb “Gypped,” however, is “Gypsy,” and not just because this is the word from which “Gypped” is probably derived. The word “Gypsy” is the misnomer that subsumes all harmful stereotypes of the Romani people, one that has long connoted illegality and irregularity. What’s more, the term is an exonym – imposed by outside groups.

The Romani people migrated west from India approximately 1,000 years ago in response to the rise of Islam, settling in cities throughout Europe and, eventually, North and South America. Many Europeans mistakenly believed that the Romani had migrated from Egypt, and so called them “Gypsies,”an abbreviation of “Egyptians.” To refer to the Romani people as “Gypsies” is both false and to invoke a term imbued with hostility and ignorance (white Europeans believed that the Romani constituted part of the “Islamic threat”). Further, the term “Gypsy” is often spelled with both a capital and lower case ‘g.’ As linguist and UN Ambassador Ian Hancock notes, “This is especially significant in English, which writes proper nouns with capital initial letters, and writing ‘Gypsy’ as ‘gypsy’ has only reinforced the common idea that we are a people defined by our behaviour rather than by ethnicity.” 1

Being a “Gypsy” is to belong to a group defined by xenophobic myths that have persisted for centuries. Being a “Gypsy” in Romania, where discrimination against the Romani is widespread and extreme, harbours one of the worst social stigmas in Europe. Zsolt Bayer, a journalist and founding member of Hungary’s Fidesz Party (by far and away the most popular political party in the country), had the following to say about the Romani people:

A significant part of the Roma are unfit for coexistence. They are not fit to  live among people. These Roma  are animals, and they behave like animals. When they meet with resistance, they commit murder. They are incapable of human communication. Inarticulate sounds pour out of their bestial skulls. At the same time, these Gypsies understand how to exploit the ‘achievements’ of the idiotic Western world. But one must retaliate rather than tolerate. These animals shouldn’t be allowed to exist. In no way. That needs to be solved – immediately and regardless of the method.

Bayer is likely well aware that over 70% of Nazi-occupied Europe’s Romani were exterminated. And like many bigoted European elites, Bayer invokes “Gypsy” as a slur.

The common tropes that characterize the Gypsy are well-known: vibrantly-dressed, musical, barefooted, nomadic, and, often, cunning and wily. These literary concoctions are deeply-embedded in the popular cultures of both Europe and North America. The category of the “Gypsy” substitutes an understanding of Romani culture and history with romantic myths that have  long-served as the basis for socioeconomic discrimination and a politics of othering. The Romani have never been permitted to speak for themselves. That a “name” assigned to them out of fear and ignorance over 1,000 years ago continues to see popular colloquial use is proof of this deplorable fact.

Like “playing Indian,” “playing Gypsy” (most commonly manifesting as donning “boho-esque” clothing while resolving to be free-spirited for the summer) is an essentializing and harmful caricature that reproduces negative stereotypes of Romanies as chronically itinerant, forever on the move – a representation that effaces the historical cause for this movement. It is not an inborn wanderlust but forced expulsion and violent discrimination that have been responsible for Romani migration. Similarly, the Gypsy variant of  boho-chic fashion portrays the Romani as lighthearted and aloof, unconcerned with contributing to society. These ostensibly “positive” stereotypes have been weaponized for centuries to relegate the Romani to the margins of European society.

Perceived as abject others and squatting outcasts, the Romani people, who make up Europe’s largest ethnic minority, have and continue to be the victims of severe marginalization. In a survey of 11 EU member states, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Human Rights found that 1 in 3 Romani were unemployed and 90% lived below the poverty line. In 2014, the Government of France evicted over 13,000 Romanies from 138 locations – approximately 3 settlements per week.

Using the words “Gypsy,” “Gypped,” and “Gyp” normalizes a racist discourse that has continued apace for centuries. These terms are harmful signifiers that deny the Romani the right to self-identify and to have these identities recognized. They perpetuate false and stigmatizing narratives of Romani culture that have formed the basis for dehumanizing and exclusionary practices for more than a millennium.

Use/Context Alternatives
“Gypsy,” “Gypsies,” “Romani,” “Romanies” –  “Roma” is occasionally used
“Gypped” “Scammed,” “Defrauded,” “Cheated,” etc.
“Gypsy boho” and other derivatives of “playing Gypsy” Just don’t.
  1. Hancock, Ian F. We Are the Romani People = Ame Sam E Rromane Dz̆ene. Paris, France: Centre De Recherches Tsiganes, 2002. Print.