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.