According to the BBC’s “Journalism News Style Guide”:
For ethnic Gypsies in the UK, we use Gypsy/Gypsies (capped up), as that is how their distinct racial group was recognised in a key High Court ruling. But the term Roma must always be included in stories about the Romany people of Eastern and Central Europe and the Middle East.
Gypsies, Romany Gypsies and Irish Travellers are legally recognised terms for distinct ethnic groups, but should be used only if we know we are referring to those groups.
We can use travellers (capped down) as a generic, but should avoid references to ‘new age’ travellers, who are an entirely different phenomenon.
Do not use ‘gipsy’, which is anachronistic and regarded by many as a deliberate misspelling to deny them their identity.
However, it is increasingly common for news reports to use either “gypsy” or “gipsy” and, as noted above, this is a deliberate attempt to minimize Romani and our rights as an ethnic group. Terms such as African American, Caucasian, Italian American, or Asian are always capitalised (though colour terms for ‘race’ (a societal construction) are often not capitalised – such as white or black).
The word “Gypsy” is used around the world to describe several unrelated groups of people, almost all of whom are no longer nomadic, and some of whom have ‘racial’ features indicating Indian ancestry.
However, “Gypsy” is an exonym – a misnomer; a misplaced identity premised on the belief that we are from Egypt. Over time, the word came to refer pejoratively to ANY nomadic population, including Irish and Scottish Travellers, Gens du Voyage, Bargees, and New (age) Travellers.
Gypsy is accepted by many as a relatively inoffensive term for us and is used extensively by Traveller and some Romany groups within the UK, the US, Australia, and Canada. The relationship different groups from different locations and backgrounds have with the word reflects our varied and often brutal histories – from hanging, to branding, slavery, forced integration and sterilisation, and the Holocaust.
A lot of younger activists are offended by use of the word Gypsy in any and every context. But, some of us grew up without knowledge of the First Romani World Congress; without knowledge of activism; and without the ability to read. My grandmother hated the word Z/zigeuner because of its association with the Holocaust and the Nazi regime (and the letter “Z” inked permanently on the few relatives who survived the camps), but freely used the word “Gypsy” when referring to us either in English or to outsiders. In fact, the word Gypsy is not related to these other words, even when used as the English equivalent – words like “Zigeuner” and “Cigany”, which have also been used to describe Romani people, have a completely separate origin, from the Greek word “Atsinganoi” and therefore mean “untouchable” or “unclean”. “Gypsy”, in that it comes from “Egyptian”, may not be historically accurate, but neither does it have the immediately offensive sense of these other words.
According to Reuters:
Do not use when referring to the Roma people. See Roma. Do not capitalise when used generically to describe someone who is constantly on the move, e.g., “She led the life of a gypsy.”
Even National Geographic – with their “American Gypsies” TV show – state that:
Some people find the term Gypsy offensive, so avoid if possible.
NGS preferred usage is Romany (not Roma) for both the language and ethnic group, Romanies plural.
So why does it matter so much anyway?
The word Gypsy is at best inaccurate and at worst offensive. It acts as a catch-all for a plethora of unrelated groups – some ethnic minorities, some not. It minimizes the culture, language, and traditions of each of those groups, conflating them into one. When a newspaper or television programme chooses to use the non-capitalised “gypsy” they are making a decision regarding how they want readers/viewers to relate to the people they are discussing.
For example, the Daily Mail’s insistence on using “Roma gipsy” or “gypsy” in sensationalist headlines such as “Roma gipsy girls as young as 12 are being forced to live in arranged marriages”, or “Angry farmer takes revenge on gypsies,” is a mark of disrespect, an attempt to confuse public perception. Far-right neo-Nazi propaganda groups like Jobbik and Golden Dawn deliberately do not capitalise the word in their “gypsy crime” rhetoric, while at the same time consistently capitalising the names of other groups such as “Jews” or “Somalians”. This lack of capitalisation places us in the same category as “dogs” or “sheep” or “pigs”; part of a non-human group of beings.
Stripping important ethnic terms of their meaning is much more dangerous than any amount of negative coverage. The failure to capitalise “gypsy” supports the idea that we are not an ethnic group deserving of a proper name, but a sub-ethnic group, a scourge of civilisation, a name that can’t be capitalised because omg racist. News articles regularly use an overwhelming array of different, but similar sounding terms, such as gypsies, Romanian gypsies, Roma gypsies, Romanian Travellers, Romani gypsies, the Roma, Romanian immigrants, and often all in the same article. This is a deliberate attempt to obfuscate the meaning of all of these words, inciting mistrust and often open hatred of “gypsy” populations. In searching out information I found an article by a self-proclaimed expert on the matter, Dennis Marlock – a vicious and prolific racist and anti-Romani writer who further inflames the debate saying, “There is a substantial segment of the Romani composed of cheats, a predatory, mostly itinerant segment practicing a criminal life-style with a number of shared attributes. Typically it is this marauding proportion of the larger Romani population which is meant when the uncapitalized term “gypsy” is used.”
However, this simply is not true. Rather than referring to a particular segment of a population, the word is used to (deliberately) reference all Romani (and others). Perhaps I am as guilty of tarring all journalists with the same brush, and perhaps it is not their intent to foster such negative stereotypes – however, the fact stands that their ignorance (willful or otherwise) has extremely negative and dangerous consequences for us. For example, in 2010, the Equality and Human Rights Commission of Scotland stated that, “Media coverage has a real impact on individual people’s lives. There have been many specific incidents where erroneous reporting of Gypsy Traveller issues in Scotland has resulted in people, including children, being harassed, bullied and even beaten up”.
My mother used to say, “Gypsy is as Gypsy does”. I used to think she was talking about romanija and our cultural heritage. Turns out she was referencing this exact argument. To a Rom, a fellow Rom acts in a certain way – regardless of whether they call themselves Gypsy or not. However, to a non-Rom, a Gypsy is believed to act in certain ways – often stereotyped – such as that of a thief, beggar, fortune-teller, or scam-artist.
Minimizing just one, small letter has an exponentially large impact on the groups it refers to. Any quick analysis of media over the past year in the UK will find that, despite so-called journalistic writing standards, more than three-quarters of all articles do not capitalize the word “gypsy”. Not only is this type of journalism immoral and unethical, it also directly violates journalistic codes of conduct; fuelling negative stereotypes, demonising our communities and further separating us from our neighbours. Other statistics for the same period illustrate a heavy bias towards articles about “gypsies” – a disproportionate amount with regards to the actual population size of these groups in the UK. A much higher amount than any other ethnic minority within the region. Most of these articles are also overwhelmingly negative (or negatively-slanted), with most being squarely in the ‘racist’ category. Most of these articles also include words such as “illegal”, “eviction”, “immigrant” or “crime”.
The negative, disrespectful, and racist way that media refers to us is a direct barrier to positive change and bridge building between communities. Unbalanced reporting and the perpetuation of dangerous and offensive myths and stereotypes fosters racial hatred, further fuelling division, fear and mistrust.
Yes, it’s only one small letter, but it has a huge impact on our lives. While I choose to no longer use the word Gypsy at all – unless in sarcastic or ironic humour, or in referencing a group who prefer the exonym – I understand that it is deeply entrenched and an integral part of many identities. It is impossible (and undesirable) to erase the word entirely, but perhaps we can at least aim to utilize it with the respect it deserves.
What can we, the people the word refers to, do about all this anyway? I don’t honestly know. Prejudice and hatred run deep and are being deliberately fueled by political parties such as Britain First, UKIP, Jobbik, Golden Dawn and countless others, no matter where they fall on the spectrum. Recently, we secured a change by complaining to the Guardian about their lack of capitalisation. Perhaps this is the only way to go – addressing each instance as it happens – being consistent and vociferous about our complaints.
After all, Gypsies aren’t just fortune-tellers, beggars, and thieves, we’re also teachers, doctors, and lawyers.