Friday, 12 February 2010

‘Gypsy’ or ‘Traveller’?

A simple question often asked. But how complicated the answer!!

First of all there are many groups of, let’s say, ‘Travellers’. There are Circus and Fairground people, generally referred to as ‘Showpeople’ often of Romany origin. There are New or New Age Travellers – largely non-Gypsies from mainstream society, who opted out, particularly in the 1960s, 70s … took to the road full of dreams but with very little back up by way of traditions to help them live, obtain food, prepare meals, eat, sleep, wash themselves and their clothes, earn a living, get married, give birth, bring up children, care for their sick and elderly – on the road in a caravan, trailer or wagon. A daunting challenge when you come to think about it – not the easy option after all!

There are ‘English’, ‘Welsh’ and ‘Scottish’ Gypsies – probably with Romany roots but who have been here for so long they differentiate according to where they best belong. There are Romany Gypsies, and what used to be called ‘didakois’, not usually regarded a very friendly term, where a Romany has intermarried and had a child with a non-Gypsy.

Irish Travellers, not surprisingly, come from Ireland. Many Irish emigrated to England in the 1850s and there was another phase of movement after World War II. It is believed by some academics, however, that some Romanis once travelled to Ireland and became ‘Irish Travellers’. Did I say it was confusing? True Irish Travellers have different origins, going back maybe four or five hundred years. Some were known as Tinkers … You really need to read my second novel, No Gypsies Served … Romany Gypsies have their origins in India … this goes back over a thousand years and they made their way, through a mix of persecution and seeking a living, across Europe branching out into various countries, finally arriving in Great Britain around 500 years ago.

So they have been with us for a long time.

Irish Travellers and Showpeople do not like to be referred to as Gypsies – for them it is a derogatory term. Many Romanies are very happy to be called Gypsy, proud of their heritage, especially the younger generation where there is a resurgence of their culture. Some Gypsies of all ages, however, will hide their ethnic identity because of potential discrimination and bullying against them. Some of the older generation can remember a time in their youth when the term Gypsy was associated with insults, so are somewhat unsure.

There are also, of course, Roma in Europe and particular groups within this – the Sinti for example.

People ask, 'But what about Travellers who live in houses? How can they be Travellers?' A good question, but if a Gypsy or Traveller belongs to an ethnic group, then where they live is immaterial; and other aspects of their deep-rooted culture give them a special identity.

Romany Gypsies in turn have a term for non-Gypsies - gorgio, which has various spellings; and the Irish Travellers would call a non-Gypsy a buffer.

This is, in fact, a huge subject. Volumes and theses have been written on the origins, culture and identity of Gypsies and Travellers and it is extremely easy to cause offence, but I hope I am getting the hang of it. I guess if I've got it wrong I'll soon hear about it from someone!


  1. Hi Miriam,

    Worth reading

    And here's a quick excerpt from the above:

    "Scottish Travellers
    From the Highlands to the Borders, Scotland has a Gypsy history that has yet to be recognised, writes Damian Le Bas

    The fact that the first record of Gypsies in mainland Britain is in Scotland is only one reason why Scottish Travellers (or “Nackins” as some call themselves) should have a pride of place in any Gypsy history. Travelling smiths are mentioned as far back as the 12th Century in Scotland, and King James the Fourth paid seven pounds to ‘Egyptians’ who were stopped at Stirling in 1505."

    Just thought I'd mention the above!

    Patsy Whyte, author of No Easy Road

  2. You are mostly spot on here, but you have to remember that many words in the Romany language (a language which wasn't written down very often) mean different things depending on location and often change through time. Stating an absolute definition of much of the language is always guaranteed to be incorrect because the ravages of time, distance, cultures passed through and that whole spoken transmission thing have had thier way with our language.
    The word Didikoi for example has different meanings in different groups, as does Pikey (originally a Romany word for both Irish Travelelrs and others who adopted the Romany lifestyle). Georgio also has some incredible variety and pronounciation (gawje/gaje etc).