Why “Gypsy, Roma, and Traveller”?


Because this is the current accepted terminology in the UK for a kaleidoscope of groups with overlapping histories and situations, who nevertheless distinguish themselves, and call themselves by different names.

The word “Gypsy” is a short form of the word “Egyptian” in English, which itself has the same root as the word “Coptic”. Across Europe there are groups that call themselves Gitanos, Gitanes, Magup, Kiptii, Yifti, Gyupsi, from the same root and even just Egyptians. Some speak Romani dialects, some do not.  The stereotype of the Egyptian as travelling  fortune-teller and dancer/entertainer goes back to 8th Century Constantinople, when Greek fortune-tellers began to claim they had inherited the mysteries of the ancient Egyptians from the Zoroastrians of Persia who had been defeated by Islamic forces. This role may have been taken up by Dom immigrants from India; but certainly the stereotype was well established by the time the Roma formed their identity in the Balkans and Anatolia in the 11th or 12th century. The “Gypsy stereotype” is 300 years older than the Romani language! The earliest Romani groups to reach Western Europe were not believed when they said they came from India, but were accepted as “Egyptians”.

The word “Romani” is probably cognate with various terms for “human”.  Its primary meaning is “decent, honourable, humane” and it is often still used in that sense.  How did it come to be the name of an ethnic group?

In the middle ages ‘ethnicity’ was not anyone’s primary source of identity. People were identified first of all by their religion – Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish (or heretic of some kind), and secondly by their rank or role in society, noble or knightly, mercantile, peasant or priest, or slave, all bound to each other by mutual obligations reinforced by religion, whatever language they spoke.  Their dialects were actually many and various and the written languages of administration were Latin, Greek and Arabic. As, however, the Europe of Christendom and the Umma gave way to empires and nation states, national or community ethnic identity became important.

In the Ottoman Empire the “Romans” in law were actually the Greeks who had been citizens of Constantinople, founded as the Eastern Rome by Constantine.  They had a special status as citizens of the state which had been conquered by the Ottomans, as opposed to other non-Muslim minorities.  Since Roma had been present in the Byzantine empire prior to its downfall, and the word for citizens of that empire was more or less the same as the word for “decent people” in their own language, it is hardly surprising that “Roman (i)” self-identification was more attractive than identification as Egyptians (which then referred to Christian Copts, not Arabic Muslims) or atsigani/ cigany, derived from the name of a Greek heretical sect.

Across Christian Europe from the 1530s onwards there were may examples where the new nation states passed genocidal laws against “Egyptians”.  It must have seemed to the people facing this threat that they were the only decent people left, and so it is understable that the word “Romani” became a word applied almost only to their own people. (But not entirely – when English Gypsies call someone a “Romani Rai” they do not mean “a Gypsy gentleman” – they mean a non-Gypsy who speaks Romanes and acts like a gentleman TO Gypsies.  When immigrant Roma say to a non-Rom: “Romano manush san tu!” they do not mean that that man Is a Rom, only that he knows how to behave appropriately in the company of Roma.)

In the English, Welsh and Spanish Romani dialects, the word ‘Rom’ does not mean ‘Gypsy';  it means “married man” of any ethnicity. Some English Gypsies call themselves ‘Romanichals’ in their own dialect, and some avoided stigmatisation by referring to themselves as Travellers.  In recent years in England the word has been very much reclaimed; as some say “People died because they were called Gypsies: we can’t give up the name now without dishonoring them!”

Many educated Roma from Eastern Europe,  however, reject the name “Gypsy” because they see it as a translation of the derogatory terms “Cigany, Tsigane, Cingene” derived from a a Greek term for a kind of heretic.  But this is mistaken. The two words have different histories, etymologies and connotations. “Tsigane/Zigeuner” is a derogatory word for Roma and Sinte (a German Romani group); it is a different word to “Gypsy/Gitane”.  The GRTPA rejects the term “cigany” and its various etymons.

The word “Travellers” has become a general word for occupational nomads, and of course many who call themselves Gypsies (and a very small minority of Roma) are occupational nomads. Probably the original Indian migrants to Anatolia who became the Romani people included many people with an occupational nomadic heritage and skills.  But across Europe, especially in small countries next to larger states with Romani populations, we come across groups who despite possibly having some Romani heritage, traditionally started off their accounts of their own identity by saying “Whatever else we are, we are NOT Gypsies/Roma!” Actually, when one considers that in all these countries, at some point to be identified as Gypsy or Rom meant death or enslavement, it is not surprising to find such groups. But such groups, like Irish Travellers and those Scottish Travellers who reject Gypsy identity, and have their own dialects,  find today that they often face anti-Gypsy prejudice, and share other experiences too with those who do call themselves Gypsies or Roma.

Whatever the history, and from diverse perspectives on their own identity, Gypsies, Roma and Travellers are today in the UK working together to combat discrimination, celebrate their inter-locking histories and learn from one another. Their co-operation, triumphing over past mutual suspicions and antagonisms should be a model for other rainbow coalitions, bringing together different groups without telling them what to call themselves or how to imagine their own identity.


Based on the research of: Prof. Ian Hancock, Dr Adrian Marsh and Prof. Thomas Acton