About the Roma: A Note Regarding The Term “Gypsy”

In my novel, Into the Free, I struggled with the use of the word “Gypsy,” but I also didn’t know what else to call this group of characters in my book. The locals in Depression-era Mississippi certainly would have referred to them as gypsies (the lowercase ‘g’ was selected during the editorial phase of the book), and most Americans don’t realize the term is considered derogatory and offensive to many Romani people. Of course, I’m not a Rom, so I certainly didn’t have the right to decide what to call this group of people. I needed to go to the source.

I was honored when a lifelong friend’s husband agreed to be interviewed regarding his experience as a Romani American. You’ll see in the interview (coming soon) that he and his family prefer to be called Romany Travelers. While he was not familiar with the Mitchell family buried in Meridian, Mississippi’s Rose Hill cemetery, historians in Meridian report the Mitchells were also Romani and that they were travelers. So those are the terms I opted to use in the novel when the “gypsies” refer to themselves: Romany and Travelers.

In the book, Romani was changed to the spelling “Romany” during the editorial phase of publication, and traveler was spelled with one /l/ as opposed to the European spelling “traveller.”

Dr. Ian Hancock with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Photo courtesy of Dr. Hancock and the University of Texas at Austin

With so many contradictions on word use and spellings, I needed some expert advice. Ian Hancock, Professor of Linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin, is not only a world-renowned expert in Romani studies, he is also the Roma ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, a member of the International Romani Parliament, and the White House appointed Romani delegate to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council. 

Under Dr. Hancock’s direction, UT at Austin oversees an extensive collection of Romani-related materials and is recognized as the premier center for the study of this unique culture. They also offer coursework in Romani language, history, and culture. So, when I wanted to find more information about Romani Americans, I was honored when Dr. Hancock responded to my request. (Learn more about Dr. Hancock’s visit with the Dalai Lama: http://www.radoc.net/radoc.php?doc=meeting_dalai_lama&lang=es&presentation=true)

Dr. Hancock suggested that Romani (with an /i/) is the proper spelling, even in America, and that most Romani do not consider themselves Travelers – whether spelled with one /l/ or two.

It seemed that every time I found a fact about this fascinating culture, conflicting information was discovered next. But that difficulty in nailing down some solid details only increased my appreciation for the complexity of the Romani culture and my recognition for how difficult it must be for them to maintain a sense of unity when they have so many different subcultures across the world.

If there’s anything I have learned while trying to identify what it means to be a Rom, it’s that there seems to be no one answer. Perhaps that’s the overall message that we all need to hear…that Romani people are just like any other group of people – they are each individuals with different ideas, opinions, talents, skills, and ambitions. And, just as any minority group, they should not be lumped into one stereotypical category.

I will never claim to understand the Romani culture, and I am certain I’ve gotten many things wrong in my book. Still, I have spent countless hours researching and learning as much as I could, and I hope I managed to portray my Romani(y)/G(g)ypsy/Travel(l)er characters in a positive light as I wrote Into the Free.

*NOTE* Many posts regarding Romani Americans, the Choctaw Nation, the early American Rodeo, and other themes from Into the Free will follow this one. Subscribe to Julie’s Journal to learn more about the facts behind the fiction.

6 thoughts on “About the Roma: A Note Regarding The Term “Gypsy”

  1. I have always known I am one quarter Bohemian on my mother’s mother’s side. In addition, we understood from family mutterings it means we are likely gypsy. As a family we have regarded it as a positive thing and the reason we are all so adventuress and independent.

  2. Pingback: About the Roma: Romani Americans Then and Now | Julie's Journal

  3. Hey Julie, I applaud you for your diligent research into the socially/politically correct term for the Romani people. I struggle with the same issue as I am writing a book with Spanish Gypsy characters. In Spanish, people of Rom ethnicity call themselves “Gitanos,” which translates to Gypsies in English. Spanish Gypsies seem to have no problem with the word, and I have never heard them refer to themselves as Rom. However, I struggle with the term in English, as I understand that “Gypsy” is now considered offensive by some, but not all, Travelers. I, like you, have to be especially sensitive to the culture as I am an outsider to it. You have done a beautiful job in portraying the American Gypsy culture sympathetically.

    • Hi Susan,
      Thank you so much for reaching out to me about your book and your research. I have learned so many fascinating facts about the Roma and am still learning more by the day. I’ve been fortunate to meet many people who consider themselves to be Romany (Romani) Travelers at this point, and I’ve also learned that there are groups within the U.S. who do prefer to be called Gypsies…go figure. Just when I think I understand this beautiful culture, I learn something new…that’s what’s so wonderful about it! I look forward to learning more about your work and reading your book when you’re ready to reveal it. Thanks for reading Into the Free and for sharing your thoughts with me.

  4. Hi Julie,

    Thanks for your reply. Interesting what you said about some groups still wanting to be called Gypsies. And just when we think we have the culture somewhat figured out, it changes from the inside out when Gypsy meets Christ, as was my experience with a group of Spanish Christian Gypsies. For centuries, Gypsies have been marginalized, stigmatized, and shunned for being “different,” but now this group of Spanish Gypsies is being labeled “different ” for another reason: their faith. I was privileged to witness an incredible phenomena in Spain, which has seen record numbers of conversions within the Gypsy community to Christianity. I lived with a Gypsy pastor and his family and saw the day-to-day struggle between their culture and their faith. Much of what I observed informs my novel-in-progress (current title Scent of Sorrow). I am still in the revision phase (which can seem endless), but hope to be completing final edits within the next 2-3 months. Whatever happens with the book will only be icing on the cake. The real treat was the life experiences I gained along the way.

    Wishing you the best,


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