09 April 2013

Why I don't use the "G" word

Today, 8 April, is International Day of the Roma.  More than a day to learn more about the Romani people's history, it is also a day to familiarize yourself with the current situation of the Roma.  Thankfully, many people we've spoken to lately have an awareness of the Roma; sadly, it is related to the porajmos, or "devouring," during World War II when hundreds of thousands of Roma were exterminated along with Jews and other persons targeted by the Nazis.  One topic which comes up regularly when we share about the Roma is the use of the term "Gypsy" in referring to them.  Two reasons why I don't use the "G" word when referring to the Romani peoples.

First, it is historically inaccurate.  Scholars agree that the exonym* "Gypsy" is derived through mythic claims of Eygptian origin.  In 1417 a group of 300 men and women, plus children, were in possession of a letter from King of the Holy Roman Empire Sigismund of Hungary guaranteeing them safe passage anywhere in the Empire.  The reason?  They were a group of religious pilgrims. One story is that they were from Egypt and were escaping Muslim persecution.  Another story is that a Romani family living in Egypt had given aid to the Holy Family when they had fled from Bethlehem and were no longer welcomed in Egypt.  Whatever reason suits you best is fine because neither was true.  But the seeds were already planted - this group of people we know as Roma were thought to originate in Egypt and were called the little Egyptians.  Over time, this was shorted to "Gypsies" even though their origin was not Egyptian.

Second, it is considered pejorative.  The words used throughout Europe for the Roma which are most often translated as "Gypsy" have clearly negative connotations - "liars," "beggars," "thieves" or "untouchable."  Though there are still some Romani groups who may refer to themselves as "Gypsy" even though it is not historically accurate, this is a decision by the group themselves for self-designation.  As insiders, they can call themselves what they wish - the definition of endonym.  But as an outsider to that community, I don't feel I have the right to use a word which most understand as pejorative.  When I consider my friends in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, a majority of them do not use "Gypsy" and many are offended by its use.  For that reason alone, I would not use the "G" word.

So today, as we remember the Romani peoples, consider how the name you use to refer to them can reflect an appreciation for their true identity or express an inaccurate history.  But on this day especially, don't use the "G" word.  Instead, pray that God would move among the Romani peoples in a powerful way - redeeming their past and securing a blessed future.

* An exonym is when a name used by outsiders to describe persons or a places which they don't use themselves.  For example, the winter-themed song "Good King Wenceslas" is about the Czech Duke Vaclav I.  His name was, in Czech, Vaclav, not Wenceslas.  Another example from Slavic languages is the name given for a person from Germany (Nemec in Slovak) that comes from a word meaning that the Germans could not speak correctly - that is, they didn't speak Old Slavonic.