If you’ve been following this blog for a while now you’ll know that the word Gypsy (especially with a lower case g ) is a highly offensive word to most Rromani people. What you might not know is why it is so upsetting. You might also want to know the correct term to use instead and a google search might well leave you even more baffled on that score! So, hopefully this post will be a good resource for this subject and of course if you have any questions (or if you’re fed up with me banging on about all this) feel free to leave your comments in the … er… comments section 🙂
In order to understand this subject clearly, you first need to understand a bit about our language and history…
The Rromani People are a displaced diaspora of India. Back around the time of the crusades, Rajput military units were formed to protect different regions of India from invading Muslim armies. As these soldiers and their families and attendants all spoke different dialects / languages, a military language had to be formed which all could understand. This language formed the basis of what is now the spoken and written language of Rromani people worldwide.
When we refer to the way we speak might say ‘Romanes.’ But that is not the name of our language. The word Rom (s) / Roma (pl) means ‘a person / us / the people / (one of) the group / the family / ‘ so to speak Romanes means to speak ‘in the way of the group / the family / the people / us / to speak in our way … it is not the name of a language and, strictly speaking therefore, ‘Rom / Roma’ is not the name of our people.. it just means ‘(one of) the people.’ (It can also mean husband but not in this context – like the word ‘man’ can mean ‘a man’ or ‘people in general.’)
So, if you refer to Rromani people as The Roma or a Rromani person as ‘A Rom’ (which a lot of people do) you are saying ‘The People’ / ‘The Group’ / ‘The Family’ or ‘One of the people / the group / the family’. That is absolutely fine, many Rromani people speak in that way, most don’t mind it even if they don’t use it themselves. It’s certainly a polite, respectful way to speak to or about Rromani people.
Getting back to the Rajputs again, two groups were defeated by the Muslim armies and forced to leave their lands. Some were captured by Turkish armies and forced to join as slaves, those who escaped into Eastern Europe were immediately captured and enslaved for hundreds of years, those who fled west were unable to find a place to settle but continued travelling through Greece and eventually into the rest of Europe, using their military skills, skills in metal work and horse trading (as well as trades they learnt along the way such as entertaining, dancing and fortune telling – more about that in another post I think? ) to make money.
Obviously during this time The Group was forced to split many times. As each new splinter group moved through different countries, new words were added to the military language they all spoke – thus each clan now speaks a slightly different version of that first ‘Language of The Group.’ They also began to refer to themselves by different names, names that for the most part described their skills and trades much in the same way as surnames do the world over.
I belong to the Petulengros (Smiths) who are of the English clan known as Romanichals (which literally means ‘Rromani Chaps’ ) and the Kalderash (The cauldron makers / copper-smiths who turned their pots on fat posts hammered into the ground). Often a Rromani family have kept their clan name (or a version of it). Sometimes though they have had to change it in order to hide the fact they are a Rromani person and so allow them to avoid persecution and live an integrated, peaceful life with the rest of society.
So, some Rromani people don’t like to be called Rom or The Roma – you can understand that now right? They don’t want to be called ‘One of the group’ or ‘The People’ … they want to be called by their clan / family name (Like you might say ‘I’m a Jones’ or ‘I’m a McGill’) they prefer to identify as something related to who their family is and what they do / did.
If you think at this point that Rromani people seem incredibly fussy and it is all terribly difficult to know what to call them please look at it this way…
You might call yourself ‘English’ or ‘American’ defining yourself by your location.
If you do so / have ever done so, please take a moment to consider that it is a privilege to be able to claim a geographical location as an aspect of your identity. It implies that you are an accepted member of that place, you belong there, it is a part of you, it’s your home.
Rromani people do not have that privilege, have not been permitted to join another nation and call it home, they have been refugees for hundreds of years and so they must find different ways of defining themselves. (And, I feel, this is food for thought for all of us when we consider the long term impact of our treatment of refugees and immigrants today.)
(It has been suggested that Rromani people reclaim their Indian connection and that is ‘all well and good’ but as many of us now have fair skin and hair and look anything but Indian, that idea seems a little laughable really! So we continue to be ‘The Family’ / ‘That Group that left India together’ because no other nation has welcomed us and we cannot now go back.)
There are so many Rromani clans in the world today (Wikipedia has a quite dreadful map showing a very few in simple blocks which can only act as a rough guide) many, as I say, call themselves Rom / Roma and some prefer their specific clan name.
So, there you have it – When referring to a Rromani person or people you can say…
Rom – One of the people
Roma – The People
Romany (/ Romani / Rromani / Rhomani ) person – A person who is of the group (spelling is dependant on dialect)
Romany (/Romani / Rromani/ Rhomani) people – The people who belong to the group
Or you can use the specific name of the clan the person / people belong to eg: Sinti, Kalderash, Kale, Romanichal etc…
My advice is to just be clear about what word / spelling you are using, what it means and why you are using it.
“But why not gypsy?” I hear you say … well, again we need to look at history and language…
The word is a shortening of ‘Egyptian’. When Rromani people first fled into Europe their dark skin and hair caused people to mistake them for Turkish invaders and later either for Egyptians or people from Little Egypt (sources are unclear as to which). They were nick named ‘gyptians’ which soon became ‘gypsies.’ Obviously a homeless refugee population are powerless to dictate what they ‘should be called’.
The word gypsy became so far removed from the word Egyptian that, rather than describing the mistaken place of origin of a group of people, it instead took on its own bizarre set of definitions. Various leaders including Vlad The Impaler, Henry The Eighth and Hitler, all used the word gypsy to justify the de-humanisation and murder of thousands of Rromani people. Rromani people were burnt with the ‘gypsy brand’ on their skin which marked them as belonging to animal rather than to human kind and having no right to existence. They were then tortured, sterilised or simply murdered.
At least 250,000 Rromani people were murdered during the Holocaust alone, at least 85% of Germany’s Rromani population were branded ‘gypsies’ and exterminated because they were seen as sub-human.
During the industrial revolution, the notion of ‘being a gypsy’ was seen as a desirable alternative to the horrors of factory and inner city life. The dehumanisation of ‘gypsies’ at this time took a different turn as they were seen as wild, free, close to nature or at one with it, romantic, mysterious, magical, desirable, roguish, care free… writers, poets and artists failed to see the poverty and persecution suffered by a people who were not nomadic or ‘free’ , but shackled to a seasonal circuit of a few safe ‘atching tan’ (‘stopping places’) where seasonal farm work could be found, not allowed to own property, speak their own language or step foot inside shops. The Gypsy Law Society epitomised the attitude when they declared membership of their elite ‘research group’ required that the gentleman must first ‘bed a gypsy.’
You can, I hope, see why nobody would want this label. Why it is distasteful, sickening and upsetting for a Rromani person to be called a gypsy. Is it any different with a capital G? I don’t think so.
So, as writers and readers and steampunk enthusiasts who write and read and cosplay in an era where Rromani people were very visible and were habitually branded ‘gypsies’ how can we include the experiences of Rromani people of that time period without perpetuating the ongoing prejudice?
It might seem like a challenge but it’s really a no-brainer – look at other oppressed groups of the colonial period. How should they be referred to / treated / spoken about in historical or punk fiction? You might for example have a racist or ignorant English character refer to an African character using the N word, but you wouldn’t use the N word in the main text of the narrative to refer to that African person would you? You also wouldn’t call them ‘The N….’ , you would use their name. Just consider the G word, exactly the same as the N word. Because, to Rromani people , it is the same.
( Some Rromani people do use the word Gypsy – either because they are trying to re-claim and re-shape it as a form of empowerment or because the word Rromani is so often met with confusion from non-Rromani people. Many cultures take words that have historically been used against them and turn them into a form of personal power – that, surely, is their prerogative. )
If we couple the respectful use of language to talk about Rromani people, with an accurate portrayal of their history and culture, hopefully we can move the image of Rromani people away from the fantastical / de-humanised ‘gypsy’ and back into reality.
I really hope this info has been helpful – I’m by no means a linguistic scholar or historian though so if you think that I’ve made a mistake anywhere do please forgive me and feel free to discuss it, we are all learning together afterall 🙂 And of course if you have any questions or want me to cover any more topics on this subject let me know,
Big blessings, Penny 🙂