July 20, 2010


Today in 1928, Hungary decreed that Romany nomads (aka Gypsies) would have to settle permanently in one place, live under Hungarian law, and start paying Hungarian taxes—leaving their wayward lifestyles behind them. If ever there were an entire people who had been gypped by history, it is the Gypsies.

v. To cheat, trick, swindle.
Oxford English Dictionary

The Romany people of central and eastern Europe have had an extraordinarily rough go of it over the years, first being named “Gypsies” under the mistaken belief that they hailed from Egypt and then having even that name reduced to “gyp” meaning “to cheat.”

While many people accept the “Gypsy-to-gyp” etymology without question, the venerable Oxford English Dictionary at least offers a few more possibilities for its origin. The OED holds that the pejorative (and most common) use of gyp is an American construction and that the initial British usage derives from “gee-up”—a phrase that once meant “to treat roughly.” In addition, it further points out that a gippo was a short jacket worn by servants in the seventeenth century, which led to the valets at Oxford being called gyps by the mid-eighteenth century. It is a pretty cynical leap to think that the eventual shift was made to consider all servants cheats and thieves capable of a gyp, but that may also be the sad truth.

Nevertheless, the association of gyp with Gypsies is the most frequent and, sadly, merely the tip of their cultural castigation. The word Gypsy is derived from the modern Greek gifti referring to an incorrect association with Egypt (the medieval French called them egyptiens). Early Romanies more likely emigrated from India, and suspicions surrounding their nomadic lifestyle have led to their persecution ever since.

Believed to be part of the Ottoman invasion, Romany immigration to Europe between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries was met with enslavement, brandings, head shavings, and hangings. In the twentieth century, the Nazis are believed to have exterminated anywhere from a quarter million to 1.5 million Romanies. Czechoslovakia started sterilizing Romani women in 1973, and as recently as 2008 the Italian government declared that Italy’s Romani population represented a “national security risk.”

Despite the best attempts of cultural ambassadors Stevie Nicks and Bette Midler to put a positive spin on the gypsy situation, mistrust persists, and the unfortunate etymological association to cheats and swindlers remains inescapable.

What a gyp.