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WHAT’S IN A NAME?



May 16th is Romani Resistance Day, the anniversary of the only recorded uprising at the Auschwitz concentration camp by Romani prisoners. Romany Journalist Jake Bowers explores the thorny issue of what to call Europe’s largest and most marginalised ethnic minority.


The Swedes say: “Loved children have many names” (“Kärt barn har många namn”); what the proverb doesn’t tell you is that hated ones do, too. For Europe’s 12 million Romany people, the names come thick and fast in every country we live in. Tsigan, Tattare, Gypsy, Zigeuner, Traveller, Gens De Voyage, Mustalainen, Knacker, Gitano, Roma, Sinti, and Pikey are just some of them, and they range from hateful to neutral. Some of these are names we use for ourselves, and some of them are spat with venom. But what name should journalists use? Could there be a single name or even an acronym for a community perceived by many as Europe’s eternal outsiders?  


The answer is “possibly”, but like all communities with incredible internal diversity, it’s complex. Let’s start with what you shouldn’t call us. Any word in any language that is derived from the Greek word Athinganoi (which means ‘heretic’) is pejorative. It has mutated across the continent into words such as Zigeuner (German), Tsigan (Hungarian) or Zigenare (Swedish).  


Variations of this word are still in common use across central and eastern Europe. In most of those countries, community activists have been campaigning for the use of the word Roma to be widely adopted for decades. The problem is the further west one travels the more contested the word Roma sometimes is. The Sinti of Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries reject the word Roma. The Romanichals of Britain and Scandinavia don’t use it either.  


The Gitanos of Spain and the Manouche of France aren’t keen on it either. The word Roma means ‘husbands’ in the Romani language, and all these groups speak variations of it. In Germany, the refusal to accept the use of a blanket term has led to the widespread use of the term Roma and Sinti (Roma und Sinti). But even in the Roma heartlands of the Balkans, the word is not accepted by all, the phrase Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian is used in Albania for example.  


This brings us to the G-word, Gypsy. Is it ever OK to call someone a Gypsy? Some community activists say the word Gypsy is a slur, end of story, but it’s not that simple. Gypsy is derived from the word Egyptian which was possibly used in the Middle Ages by ourselves. We know the first migrants to Britain, for example, carried papal decrees asking for safe passage for the “Princes of Little Egypt”. The name also featured in the Egyptians Act which made it a capital offence to be who we are. Gypsy has all the connotations of wanderlust, fecklessness and immorality that community activists are keen to overcome. The problem is in Western Europe, the name and derivations of it have also been reclaimed by civil rights organisations. The British Gypsy Council was founded in 1971. Spain’s Fundacion Secretariado Gitano has been doing great work to promote our human rights for decades. Much as the word Queer simply no longer means ‘strange’, the word Gypsy is a badge of honour for some of us.  


What is certain is Europe’s Romany people do not come from Egypt, our beautiful Romani tongue has its roots in India. It shares many words with Hindi and Urdu, but it also has words that are from Greek, Persian, Armenian or Burushaski. Some of us passed through Egypt on our migrations through North Africa before going to Spain, Portugal, and the Americas. Some community activists and evangelical Christians in the community still believe we come from Egypt, but linguistic and DNA analysis suggests otherwise, which would make it a misnomer. It is often hated by some because they mistranslate Tsigan to Gypsy. Tsigan means heretic; Gypsy is a derivation of Egyptian. A misnomer for sure, but one for many of us that does not carry the same weight of hatred. If I had relatives who were tattooed with a ‘Z’ for Zigeuner by the Nazis, I would hate that word too.  


The wide acceptance of the word Gypsy in Britain has led to the creation of the phrase Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller (GRT), which would seem to include all ethnic communities with an ancestral culture that was nomadic. The word Gypsy refers to the 300,000 Romanichals that live in the UK, the word Roma refers to the 300,000 Roma migrants living in the UK, and the word Traveller covers all the Irish and Scottish Travellers who do not have a Romani cultural origin. The Irish Travellers have their own language in which they refer to themselves as Pavee. It also incorporates New Travellers who cannot plausibly claim a racial Romany identity. Although some New Traveller families are indeed multi-generational, they are far more a product of Britain’s housing crisis and alternative politics than a 1,000-year migration from India.  


For me, the word Traveller is also problematic. It describes an ancestral nomadic behaviour that simply is not part of many of our lives anymore. I travel, and I’ve travelled in horse-drawn and modern caravans, but like most of Europe’s Romany people, I live in a house,, and my racial identity is far more than just a behaviour. When Romany people either choose or are forced by modern legislation to settle, the word Traveller becomes a stick with which to beat us. It is used by local communities to say: “Well if you’re a Traveller, keep travelling and be on your way.” It is used frequently to deny Romany children the right to a stable home, healthcare, and education. In truth, the phrases Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller are creaking under the strain as they try to project a common identity upon a vast diversity of peoples who maybe have very little or anything at all in common other than a perhaps distant memory of being nomadic. A dark-skinned, Balkan Roma man raised in an Islamic Romany Mahalla (neighbourhood) in Kosovo that has existed for five centuries has far more culturally in common with a Turk than he does with a red-headed Irish Traveller locked into a cycle of trespass and eviction in the British Midlands.  


So, what then should we call these hated children with many names? For me, the answer is surprisingly simple, if the person you are referring to has a Romani cultural root, then they aren’t a Tsigan, a Gypsy or a Pikey; they are a Romany. It’s a good old English noun and an adjective. The word Romani is also acceptable, though for me, it refers to our language, and it’s linked back to Hindi or Gujarati. If someone has another cultural identity, simply ask them what it is. They may tell you they are a Pavee, an Ashkali or a New Traveller. For any journalist fascinated by human diversity, those differences aren’t something to be confused or confounded by but an opportunity to tell an untold human story. On this Romani Resistance Day, in which Romani prisoners in Zigeunerlager (Gypsy camp) at Auschwitz fought off Nazi guards with anything they could put their hands on, it’s a very good day to call us by our real names.  


The views in this article represents the opinion of the author.

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