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Is "gypsy" an ethnic slur?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Dwarven Gold, May 11, 2011.

  1. Dwarven Gold

    Dwarven Gold Minstrel

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    In one of my stories I have a main character who refers to himself as a "gypsy." When I told someone about the story, she got all upset and said that the word "gypsy" is hate speech. She even got angry about it, comparing it to the n-word.

    When did the word "gypsy" become a big no-no? If I take the word out of my story, it loses something.
     
  2. Fodwocket

    Fodwocket Minstrel

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    To most people it's not offensive, but to the Romani people (aka gypsies) it usually is. This is because even now in some European countries it is used as an insult, and tends to have all the negative connotations of them being thieves etc.. It was a name that people gave to them, not what they call themselves. It is not well known, but around half of all Romani people died in the holocaust (and they weren't allowed to testify to this at the trials later, they could only testify on behalf of Jewish victims), and the persecution didn't stop there. Up until 1989 there were still being forcibly sterilised in some countries, and even to this day they are often treated with contempt and not allowed into some cities. So while we may not really be aware of it anywhere near as much in places like Australia or America, to anyone of Romani descent living here, or anyone living in Europe, it's a much bigger issue. Honestly me even calling them Romani is a bit of a generalisation, because there are many different groups with different names, that's just one of the larger ones.

    So it is a shame it wouldn't really be appropriate to use it in your story. However you might still be able to get your meaning across, possibly by even having someone else use the word gypsy and then having the character being referred to getting offended. That would be realistic anyway. It's fairly unlikely anyone of Romani descent would refer to themselves in that way, unless they were doing it to make a point or something.
     
  3. Helbrecht

    Helbrecht Minstrel

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    I think "gypsy" in the case of your story refers to a sort of nomadic lifestyle rather than an ethnic background, doesn't it? Beyond the Roma, I'm aware of at least one ethnic group that the moniker is frequently applied to, which has a similar sort of lifestyle of communal wandering from settlement to settlement (Irish Travellers). I think "travellers" is a more polite, PC substitute for "gypsies".

    But yeah, "gypsy" has too many negative connotations these days. While it isn't a racist term in itself, using it to refer to a community or ethnic group is essentially calling them all thieves, conmen and scoundrels. Use a more polite synonym or avoid it altogether to avoid causing undue offense. If it's a fantasy story, I suggest coming up with an original name.
     
  4. Someone tell Dio! And Fleetwood Mac!

    I find it quite ludicrous to think that referring to someone as a gypsy could be considered 'hate speech'. Pikey, yes – that embodies numerous negative connotations. Gypsy, though, conjures up more romantic images, at least to me. Indeed, the word embodies all that is great about humanity: the yearning to roam, to explore, to cut loose the shackles of conventional society.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  5. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    I think if you're likely to alienate a friend over the issue, it's best to be diplomatic and use another word. Unless you're trying to make a specific point or highlight an issue with it, there's no point in being controversial. Take the path of least resistance.
     
  6. Isn't that the worst thing any writer can do?
     
  7. Donny Bruso

    Donny Bruso Sage

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    I think taking the path of least resistance would be a mistake. I think you should sit down and consider all the possibilities and choose the one that doesn't compromise your story or your principles. And if that word is gypsy, so be it. Personally I don't see any negative connotations to the word. Granted, I'm not an ethnicity it applies to, but if someone came up and announced themselves to be one, my first reaction would be 'Cool'.

    At the same time, however, I would do a substantial amount of research into historical fact about these people, so that you avoid any unnecessary stereotypes that might be offensive. Using the word honestly in one thing, using it carelessly, and attaching it to untrue stereotypes is quite another.

    People get way too bent out of shape about words, and pay zero attention to intent. The word itself is harmless, it's the connotation you attach to it that gives it meaning. I'm assuming that your purpose in to entertain with your writing, not to offend people. If this is indeed the case, as your post makes it seem to be, then you should stick to what you determine is right.
     
  8. Chilari

    Chilari Staff Moderator

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    Generally, I'd agree with you; in fact I'd go further to say that there are a lot of situations in life where it's the wrong thing to do. But this seems like a trivial matter, one which seems likely to offend and give no benefit. Assuming the person Dwarven Gold told is a friend and not just some random person, I'd say it's best not to anger this friend for the sake of a word which can be changed. Writing may be important; it certainly is for me. But it's not the only important thing. Friends and family are important too, and how is alientating them going to make your book or your life any better?
     
  9. Valkyrie

    Valkyrie New Member

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    In Europe, it's not a polite name to call someone but in the US, Roma groups use gypsy even in official names for their organizations and it doesn't carry the same negative associations (American's in general tend to romanticize gypsies) and doesn't exclusively refer to the Roma.
     
  10. Ravana

    Ravana Istar

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    I would say it is only an ethnic slur if (1) it is applied to a member of one of the ethnic groups traditionally identified as "Gypsies" (in which case it ought to be capitalized; otherwise, it may be a class slur, but not an ethnic one), and (2) in a time period or setting where an alternative term is known–19th century onward, for English. If your fantasy world isn't based on real-world ethnicities, then using the lower-case version is merely descriptive of a lifestyle; if this isn't clear from context, you might consider having a group of gypsies of clearly different ethnicities. If your setting is pre-1800 real world, then "Gypsy" is what the rest of your characters would be calling them regardless, and using anything else would be an anachronism.

    Note that I did say "ethnic groups," plural: not all "Gypsies" are Romani (or Roma–and they don't all agree on which of those terms is the correct one, either).

    But offering a blanket condemnation of the name "Gypsy" as pejorative makes no more sense than would doing so for the name "Jew"–which is used pejoratively throughout the world on a daily basis, even if there are also numerous people who do self-identify by that term. Your friend needs to step back and reconsider, in light of whatever it is you're trying to accomplish by using the word… whereas you should also be clear about what it is you're trying to accomplish, or whether there's some perfectly acceptable alternative that won't do the job as well or better without the baggage.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 11, 2017
  11. Chase Simba

    Chase Simba Dreamer

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    Unless your character is using the term gypsy to refer specifically to the stereotypes that some people use, there's no need to worry about it. Your character is using to refer to his group of people, inside a fantasy setting, where not only are the customs going to be different, but people's attitudes too. If anyone says anything about it, then reply as such.
    Oh, and for the thread's actual topic, I agree with Ravana.
    P.S Dwarven gold: The person you told is most likely one of the people using stereotypes. It wouldn't matter so much to her if she didn't think that about gypsies. It may be deep ingrained, but it's still there. BTW, this is my opinion. I may turn out to be completely wrong, and she just is misinformed.
     
  12. meylaran

    meylaran Acolyte

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    Personally, if your story will lose something by not using, keep it in. There's no way you're not going to eventually offend someone anyway. If your friend is offended by the word, warn them in advance that they may not want to read your book. We choose our words for a reason and you, obvivously, have a reason you chose that one.
     
  13. Dwarven Gold

    Dwarven Gold Minstrel

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    Thanks for the input folks. After thinking hard about this over a few beers, I've decided to keep the bloody word in the story.

    Now that the decision's been made, it's time to celebrate with a few more beers. It's a special occasion. ;)
     
  14. Vita Numinous

    Vita Numinous Scribe

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    Living in the U.S., I don't tend to associate the word gypsy with a racial slur, but I do know for certain that there are places where it really is. I could easily have tried the same thing in my writing, and come on the same problem. I might go ahead and make the "gypsy" culture very distinct, let myself describe it in rich detail, so that when I attached a new name to the people they were just that much more my own creation. That way you have the feel of the people you are describing, and a word that your specific fantsasy culture calls themselves. With the right details, all of the feelings we have around the mythical sterotype of that nomadic kind of life make it clear what you are talking about (and adds the whole rich world of assumptions we have about the type) while not using the actual word and running into issues.
     
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