Some time in late high school or early college, I started to correct my friends whenever they used the word “gypped.” In most cases it wasn’t a confrontational correction, because--like with so many other casual slurs--they had no idea what it really meant. I’d say something like, “Did you know that word comes from the word ‘gypsy’?” Usually that was more than enough. They’d be horrified, they’d tell their friends, and within a couple of years I stopped hearing the word in any of our circles.
Generally speaking, I have good taste in friends. They’re good people. They just didn’t know.
Here’s something I didn’t know until last year.
“Gypsy” itself, is a slur. It’s been used for centuries to run Romani people out of villages, towns, cities, countries. It’s been used to deny employment or to justify slavery. The Romani have been victims of lynching and concentration camps, of hatred and erasure.
You might be tempted to tell yourself, “But that’s overseas. Here in America ‘Gypsy’ has a completely different connotation.”
No. Not really. In part because many Romani who survived the Holocaust moved here, and many survive to this day. They have children and those children feel the pain of their parents and grandparents acutely, so that connotation hasn’t disappeared, nor should it. Remembering that something happened is the first step in making sure it doesn’t happen again. Plus America has its own set of stereotypes, as well as its own history of enslaving Romani people.
A short, but by no means encompassing, list below:
- Gypsies are thieves/charlatans who will rip you off if you let them.
- Gypsies are fortune tellers.
- Gypsy women are whores.
- Gypsy men are killers.
- They have the power to curse people.
- They all love to dance and play tambourines and wear bandanas.
- They’re hypersexual and hot tempered.
- They’re all homeless and at best travel in roaming caravans criss-crossing the country.
But… But… I have Romani friends and they *self-identity* as Gypsy!
And that’s their choice. The people within a marginalized group can choose to reclaim a word used to shame and hurt them in an effort to turn it into a positive. However, it’s almost never okay for people outside that group to use the word to identify said group.
But the DICTIONARY says--
Stop. Just stop. Many dictionaries still list a definition of “nigger” as a snag or hindrance.* I dare you to use that term around me and try to use that definition to defend yourself. Pro-tip: You won’t have a chance, because I’ll already have blocked you.
So, yeah. “Gypsy” is not a good word. And I used it a lot.
I used it in the first edition of Want Me. Joel often calls Walker a “gypsy” because Walker is a wanderer (see dictionary excuse above). I didn’t think anything of it because I have American-Romani friends who self-identify as Gypsy (see friends excuse above). But since then, I’ve come across several articles** and firsthand accounts written by people who were pained by the term. They were emotional, and true, and hard to read. And if they were hard to read, I knew I had no concept of how painful it was to live that reality.
Honestly speaking, I don’t care about offending people. I do, however, care very much about hurting them.
When it came time to edit the second edition of Want Me, I took it as a second chance and made some changes. The story still starts with Joel using that word, but as his world gets bigger and deeper he--as he does with so many other things--matures out of it in a way that I think is believable and organic. I was glad to have the opportunity to make those changes, to have a chance to mature with him.
To anyone who was hurt reading the way the word was used in the first edition, I apologize. Full stop.
* A few of those articles:
- "The Problem with the word 'Gypsy'."
- "A Brief Introduction to Romani History."
- "The Pariah Syndrome: An account of Gypsy slavery and persecution."
- "Flowchart for Justification of Using the Word Gypsy."
** To be fair, Dictionary.com (from which I paraphrased this particular definition) tries fairly hard to explain that it is a slur, is offensive, and should not be used. And although I disagree with some of the things in its usage note, “Gypsy” doesn’t even get that treatment.