Just Gypsies, Not Tramps or Thieves
March 18, 2011 6:59 PM   Subscribe

Is it politically correct to use the word "gypsy" to describe someone who lives a traveling lifestyle?

I know there's been some discussion here before about the inappropriateness of using the word gypsy to indicate someone is a thief but is it okay to use the word strictly to romanticize the fact that someone lives a life that involves moving from place to place, with no other connotations?
posted by Jess the Mess to Writing & Language (48 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Would "nomad" work for you? It seems to mean what you want it to, without any racial baggage (that I know of).
posted by davey_darling at 7:02 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think it's fine in the US, depending on how it's said I guess. I don't ever recall gypsie being said in a derogatory way.
posted by sanka at 7:07 PM on March 18, 2011

I'm not going to opine whether it's "okay," but it's certainly not politically correct.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:12 PM on March 18, 2011

Consider this analogy: a minstrel is, historically, a person who tells stories through music (like in the Renaissance), but a minstrel show was one where people wore blackface and propagated hateful stereotypes about African Americans for entertainment. Now, to use the word minstrel will most likely make anyone think of minstrel shows even if you mean the other thing. Better to use a synonym that is less loaded and less likely to spark an argument if your intention is merely to describe something rather innocuous.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 7:14 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

Sorry, misread that part of the question. You might not intend offense, and none may be taken, but you still can't strip a word of all of its connotations.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:14 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

//Now, to use the word minstrel will most likely make anyone think of minstrel shows even if you mean the other thing.//

Actually, when I hear "minstrel" I think wandering musician. If only I was somebody... ;)
posted by COD at 7:17 PM on March 18, 2011 [17 favorites]

Well, it could offend people. (The Wikipedia entry on "Gypsy" says it "may refer, often pejoratively, to any of the following nomadic peoples...") And there's another word, "nomad," that means the same thing. Similarly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the word "niggardly," but why would you choose to use that word, which you know could offend people (someone lost his job over it!), when there are perfectly good synonyms like "stingy"?
posted by John Cohen at 7:23 PM on March 18, 2011

I commend you to James Hetfield's badass thesaurus skillz:

rover, wanderer, nomad, vagabond/ call me what you wiiiiilllllll

("Wherever I May Roam," Metallica, the black album)
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 7:26 PM on March 18, 2011 [11 favorites]

You can never separate fully what your intentions are from how they are interpreted by others. Using a less loaded word would be better.
posted by mleigh at 7:48 PM on March 18, 2011 [4 favorites]

The politically correct and ethnically generic term is Traveler.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:49 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

(...or with two L's, even. Damn you, US English spellcheck!)
posted by Sys Rq at 7:51 PM on March 18, 2011

I guess its fine in the U.S. but my Serbian/Bosnian pals told me it was a bad thing to say.
Well, actually they said it's used negatively to describe.. well... gypsies.
posted by KogeLiz at 7:53 PM on March 18, 2011

And to answer the question, no, "gypsy" is not ever politically correct. Even when it's not being used as a racial slur (which it is, majorly), there is always a better word. There's really no reason to ever use that word.
posted by Sys Rq at 7:56 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

Check it.
posted by hal_c_on at 8:02 PM on March 18, 2011

Let's just strip political correctness, or whatever, out of the equation here. It's confusing.

A Gypsy--with a capital G--is properly used to describe someone of a particular race. It's a racial term, not racist. The same goes for someone who is a Traveller.

Unless you are describing an individual of that particular race, don't use Gypsy or Traveller. You are looking for a word that refers to a lifestyle. So nomad, wanderer, vagabond, are all words that convey this, in various forms.
posted by randomination at 8:03 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

A wandering minstrel I —
A thing of shreds and patches,
Of ballads, songs and snatches,
And dreamy lullaby!

The word Jew has certainly been used in a negative ethnographic sense, but people still use that, although perhaps not in an adjectival sense.

While I think political correctness is a vine chocking our language, on reflection, perhaps you should go with a better word.
posted by oxford blue at 8:05 PM on March 18, 2011

Not really.
posted by jitterbug perfume at 8:08 PM on March 18, 2011

A Gypsy--with a capital G--is properly used to describe someone of a particular race. It's a racial term, not racist.

What race would that be? Roma? Romani? I'm not buying that it's the appropriate, nonoffensive racial descriptor of a Romani person.
posted by J. Wilson at 8:17 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the US, it's uncommon enough that few bat an eye. In other places, not so much.

I had an acquaintance in college who was from a relatively homogenous local culture and he once remarked that someone "jewed him out of five dollars." I was aghast, but he didn't realize what he'd said. In his little corner of the world, it wasn't offensive, but to most...

Best to stick with nomad.
posted by mikeh at 8:19 PM on March 18, 2011

is it okay to use the word strictly to romanticize the fact that someone lives a life that involves moving from place to place

If that's the connotation you're going for, something like "free spirit" or "rolling stone" might work (although I agree with the suggestion of "nomad" too).
posted by amyms at 8:25 PM on March 18, 2011

Or "sojourner" which means a person who resides in a place temporarily.
posted by amyms at 8:31 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

My family refer to the period of time when I was living out of a backpack and travelling around with no apparent purpose my gypsy period. I and they never knew of any negative or pejorative connotation. That said...use nomad, it's safer and won't offend anyone easily offended.
posted by schyler523 at 9:50 PM on March 18, 2011

Jess the Mess is looking for a romanticized way of describing a lifestyle, and neither "nomad" nor "traveler" nor any of the other alternatives suggested here really fits that bill. (Oh, except I see amyms made some more colorful suggestions.)

Personally I wouldn't hesitate to use the word like this: "She was a bit of a gypsy, always moving on" or "She led a gypsy-style life, traveling from..." --just so long as you make it explicit what connotation of "gypsy" you're trying to evoke.

M-W defines Gypsy as "a member of a traditionally itinerant people who originated in northern India and etc." and gypsy as "one that resembles a Gypsy; especially: wanderer," with no mention of an offensive connotation at all.

I think the comments above are being a bit over-sensitive, at least if the audience in question is American. However, I my perspective is U.S.-based; people from other countries may feel differently.
posted by torticat at 9:57 PM on March 18, 2011 [3 favorites]

I move from place to place a lot - I often say I have must have gypsy blood in my veins or a little bit of gypsy in my soul. No one has ever taken offense or found it offensive. I've lived in all four corners of the USA and a few bits in the middle. So, take that as you will.
posted by patheral at 10:17 PM on March 18, 2011 [2 favorites]

I think you'll find it's immensely difficult to describe what is currently politically correct amongst any particular group of people, because the whole point of political correctness is to exercise power over other people by deeming their speech offensive and then forcing them to recant or publicly shaming them. To accomplish this, the goalposts of politically correct speech are constantly moving. So while it's politically correct to call someone a visible minority one day, the next you have to refer to them as a racialized person, or whatever the latest trendy in-group term is. Did John become Jane and you called her transsexual? You're such a sexist hetero-normative bigot - it's transgendered. So, is "gypsy," in a context totally divorced from referring to Gypsies (and, crucially, divorced from any possibly negative connotation, much unlike Jewed) politically correct? Almost certainly not, at least in the sense that you are going to offend a certain percentage of the people who make it their business to be offended by these sorts of things. If you want to play it safe, a word like "nomadic" or "itinerant" is a far better bet than a word that refers to the traditional lifestyle of a group of people.
posted by Dasein at 10:18 PM on March 18, 2011 [5 favorites]

Traveller is used in Britain to refer to Roma, Irish Travellers and people who adopt a travelling lifestyle. I find it a good word, particularly as (without the Irish note) it is ethnically neutral. Nomad doesn't feel like the right word to me, because I feel like that describes a different lifestyle - nomadic hunting-gathering or herding, as opposed to travelling labour, artists or entrepreneurs who are a minority within a settled culture.
posted by jb at 10:41 PM on March 18, 2011

I don't think I have ever heard gypsy used pejoratively (or known anyone to take it that way). In fact the only people I generally hear use it are referring to themselves, or other members of their community, or people whom they wish they were more like. The sense in which you'd like to use it is the very one in which (I think) most people who use it mean it.
Ditto to posters above who've mentioned the Gypsy/gypsy distinction, that might help clarify; also to Dasein there who astutely points out that anything is probably offensive to somebody.
posted by attercoppe at 11:33 PM on March 18, 2011

Use "gypsy" in a slang way. If anyone ever has a problem with it, just tell them, "they're called Roma you racist." People in cities will either have heard of gypsy cabs or will take your word for it.
posted by rhizome at 11:39 PM on March 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

In the UK, using the word "gypsy" is definitely not okay. As said before, "traveller" is much more acceptable. Perhaps it is a different story in the USA.
posted by teraspawn at 11:51 PM on March 18, 2011

I know most people in the US don't think twice about using the word "gypsy" because they've had very little exposure to travellers. however do a little googling, and you'll soon realise that they are frequently persecuted and even *to this day* subjected to attempted ethnic cleansing (particularly the Roma).

so while it may not be a big deal elsewhere, and may not even be remarked on , I'd think you'd want to try to avoid anything that contributes to that persistent stigmatisation. so "gypsy" even innocuously? no.
posted by wayward vagabond at 1:43 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

My paternal family are Travellers. I strongly dislike the word "gypsy", because the only times I have ever heard it have been as slurs directed at me and my family - people calling us "filthy gypsies", or "thieving gypsies" and any number of other things.

I understand that in North America, people use it in a romanticized fashion, or to refer to a style of clothing and things like that, but it is impossible for me to hear that word and not cringe in memory out of all those times I've heard that word spoken out of hate.
posted by Joey Joe Joe Junior Shabadoo at 1:58 AM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

In UK/Europe, "Gypsy" would definitely be seen as a politically-incorrect way to refer to the Romani people. "Traveller" would be a specific term for a particular group of people (see further down the Wikipedia Traveler page). Use of either of those terms over here would be non-preferred and possibly confusing (unless you were referring to someone who was ethnically a Traveller). As suggested upthread, maybe "nomad" or "wanderer".
posted by Infinite Jest at 2:50 AM on March 19, 2011

As I understand it, Romany gypsy rather than just "gypsy" is OK, but only if you're talking about that particular group.

Traveller (in the UK) tends to be the catch all to describe Irish travellers or other ethnic groups.
posted by MuffinMan at 3:37 AM on March 19, 2011

I live in Chicago. I've heard the word "gypsy" used pejoratively many times and think that if you say it with whatever intentions, there is a huge chance that people will take it as in insult to a group of people.

Interestingly to me, most people around here who use "gypsy" pejoratively would probably tell you they are not referring to an ethnic group, but rather to certain activities. The word is, however, currently used by (and concerning) Romani people who come into a place where I work.
posted by BibiRose at 4:44 AM on March 19, 2011

A year ago, Shakira and Rascal Flatts performed her new single, Gypsy, on American Idol, which even includes references to thieving. I know that doesn't necessarily prove 'gypsy' has no offensive connotations in the US, but American Idol is quite whitebread by American middle-class standards and would most likely have avoided any controversy that would have come of it. As near as I can tell, there was no outcry over the use of the word.
posted by AzraelBrown at 5:53 AM on March 19, 2011

Those who've never heard "gypsy" used pejoratively, have you never heard "gyp"? As in, "I got gypped" or "What a gyp" (basically, "cheat"). It was common when I was a kid in the southeast US, but I don't know if it's fallen out of use.

Yes, gypsy has been used pejoratively in the US.
posted by galadriel at 6:04 AM on March 19, 2011 [1 favorite]

A Gypsy--with a capital G--is properly used to describe someone of a particular race. It's a racial term, not racist.

Virtually no one of that race uses the word "Gypsy" to describe themselves. It is taken as, at best, ignorant, if not actually offensive. If you genuinely don't want to offend anyone with it, don't use it.

"You don't get to decide if I'm offended." - I don't know who said it, but it makes sense.
posted by Etrigan at 8:41 AM on March 19, 2011 [2 favorites]

You're talking about finding a word to romantically describe someone's chosen 'alternative' lifestyle - and asking about a term commonly used in a denigrating way to describe/refer to a small marginalized group, currently and historically oppressed at least in part due to the way their traditional lifestyle/culture differs from the mainstream -

I, for one (as a North American white minority with my own particular package of privilege and marginalization) would much rather err on the side of oversensitive than undersensitive.
posted by Salamandrous at 8:45 AM on March 19, 2011

Since political correctness is a pejorative term in itself used to attack the idea that the majority should ever be expected to stop using thoughtlessly oppressive and hurtful language without examining it, themselves, or society, it might be best to avoid using the term when asking questions like this and ask instead simply, "Would saying [this thing] be considered offensive, rude, or harmful? To whom and in what context?"

Europe appears to have a much different history with the word "Gypsy" than America. I don't think your average American associates it with racism, the Holocaust, or much of anything, really, except for some vaguely swarthy wandering stereotype that might belly dance and wear gaudy jewelry and be accused of petty crimes by stick-in-the-mud middle class matrons. But since you never know, really, who you're talking to and what their life experiences have been, it's worthwhile to hedge your bets and choose another term, of which there have been many in this thread. Especially if you're going to write it down.

The jew example--inoffensive in the person's native location, terribly offensive outside of it--is perhaps the best analog in the thread, and hopefully is enough to make the point.

Good on you for recognizing that words have power, and attempting to be responsible with how you use them.
posted by jsturgill at 10:14 AM on March 19, 2011 [3 favorites]

I would say wayward vagabond makes a good point about how the term "gypsy" is viewed in much of the world. Also, "wayward vagabond" might be a good phrase for your purposes.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 12:58 PM on March 19, 2011

Nomad. Wanderer. Rambler.
posted by dancestoblue at 4:10 PM on March 19, 2011

I consider that usage hostile at worst, essentializing at middling, and ignorant/naive at best.
posted by threeants at 6:17 PM on March 19, 2011

I knew the word 'gypsy' as a romanticized term before I learned it applied to a real group of people. It still has very positive connotations for me.
Well, that and the first line of Dylan's "I want you": 'the gypsy undertaker sighed'
I've learned more now but I still think it's a good word for romantic wanderers
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 8:48 PM on March 19, 2011

It depends entirely on the person who is reading your description or your saying it to. I myself would try to interpret what the intended meaning is by the person using it. Some would consider it politically incorrect, while others would not give it the slightest negative thought. My uncle used to use the word gypsy on many occasions about his ancestors, and I knew he meant no harm by it and therefor didn't give it a second thought when he did use it.

Different people, different opinions. There is no correct answer.
posted by Taurid at 9:41 PM on March 19, 2011

that and the first line of Dylan's "I want you": 'the gypsy undertaker sighed'

Well, and Spanish Harlem Incident... talk about romantic (okay, romanticized). :)

Though, okay, that was like 45 years ago, so maybe not relevant to this discussion.
posted by torticat at 9:50 PM on March 19, 2011

As in, "I got gypped" or "What a gyp"

I remember this too, from when I was a kid in Florida. It took me 20 years before I realized that the word had its origins in "Gypsy". I would even wager that the majority of people in the United States don't realize that the word "Gypsy" is used to refer to a specific ethnic group at all.
posted by the jam at 10:27 PM on March 19, 2011

My friend's parents (who are Irish, but live in Liverpool) use the term "itchy feet" to describe someone who moves around a lot as in "Jane has always had itchy feet; she just loves to travel." Not exactly a romantic term, but unlikely to offend anyone, even those with problems with foot rashes.
posted by kaybdc at 11:45 AM on March 20, 2011

I often find that an easy way out of this type of conundrum is to avoid saying what somebody is, and instead just say what they do. So instead of

"X is a gypsy/traveller/nomad"


"X moves around from place to place"

This is kind of the idea behind E-prime.
posted by primer_dimer at 8:19 AM on March 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

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