Today, this word Gypsy is used when referring to the extended itinerant or “nomadic” communities, however most people are unaware of its history and meaning.
“Gypsy” was first attributed to the Romani community upon their arrival in England.
Originally from Northern India, the Romani started migrating to Europe around the 1100s. The reason that lead them to leave their native land is still disputed today: some say it was because of the growing tension in the Pakistani border, others talk about the famine, drought and strict caste system. Yet, regardless of the specific reason, it would be safe to say they left in search of a better life in Europe.
Instead, they found prejudice, hate and isolation from the rest of society.
Upon their arrival in the UK, the British labelled them as “Gypsies”. This word comes from the middle-English “Gypcyan” and was used when referring to Egypcyan people. It was then extended to the Romani community because of their darker hair and skin-colour.
When European boats began sailing across the seas to find the “new world”, Romani people were held as slaves and often taken with them to the colonies. This exploitation lasted for 500 years.
After that, during World War II, Romani people were signalled and hunted by the Nazi and portrayed as “untouchable” and “unworthy of life”. These ideas started becoming synonyms of “Zigeuner”, German for Gypsy.
The term “Gypsy” carries the weight of all these difficulties, violence and trauma.
But what about Irish Travellers?
In the UK exists another community referred to as “Gypsy”, the Irish Travellers.
The two communities’ genetic heritage has no relation, contrary to what was expected.
Even though Irish travellers are also a marginalised community, they do not share Romani people’s painful history.
Since 1971 Romani people started holding the “World Romani Congress”, in which are discusses the struggles of the community - among which the use of the word “Gypsy” – and founded other international organisations to tackle anti-Romani racism.
However, the fight is not over.
As of 2017, 90% of travellers have experienced discrimination among which, 77% experienced hate crime in the UK, according to the “Discrimination facing Gypsies, Roma and Travellers in the UK today” briefing.
Therefore, being mindful of the weight and history this term carries is very important to make a better and more inclusive society.