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How offensive is the word 'pikey'?

Travellers' camp at Crays Hill, Essex

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Formula One commentator Martin Brundle is being investigated by media watchdog Ofcom after using the term "pikeys" in a television broadcast. But where does the word come from and how offensive is it?

It's a word very rarely heard on television.

In an interview with Bernie Ecclestone before Sunday's Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, Brundle referred to repairs being made to the track.

"There are some pikeys out there putting down new tarmac at Turn 10. Are they out of the way yet?"

Ofcom said it had received seven complaints and ITV apologised to viewers.

Brundle isn't the first media figure to be condemned for using the word, which is considered insulting by the traveller community.

OED definition of 'pikey'
The OED says it's an offensive term

Last year on ITV's Hell's Kitchen, chef Marco Pierre White said: "I don't think it was a pikey's picnic tonight."

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, its first use in print was in the Times in 1837, referring to strangers who had come to the Isle of Sheppey island to harvest. Later that century it meant a "turnpike traveller" or vagabond.

But in more recent years it has become a term of abuse and in the eyes of the law using it can even be deemed a racist offence, given its association with Irish travellers and Roma Gypsies.

In December, at Lewes Magistrates' Court, Lee Coleman, 28, admitted using racially-aggravated threatening words and behaviour after a row with a nightclub manageress.

He had told her: "I'm not paying you, pikey."

Badge of honour

Charlotte Brewer, Oxford University lexicographer, says the OED clearly labels it as an offensive term that came from the word "pike" meaning a road on which a toll is collected.

Martin Brundle
ITV has apologised for Brundle's comments

It didn't make the early editions of the OED at the start of the 20th Century, which probably means it did not have any literary or newspapers sources at the time, although it was used. However "piker" did get into the first edition, which meant much the same thing.

In 1955, Peter Wildeblood, a champion of gay rights whose campaigning later helped decriminalise homosexuality, used the word as a badge of pride: "My family's all pikeys, but we ain't on the road no more."

Then it was a slang word, says Ms Brewer, but not necessarily an unpleasant or insulting one.

"But as we can see from the 2006 entry, the word seems to have come back into use more recently, and the OED editors use the words 'squalid, disreputable, vulgar' to define it. They are sure it is an insulting term.".

This is the language of social discrimination and it's quite shocking that this language is now being bandied about
Slang expert Tony Thorne

There is no word more offensive to a traveller, says Cliff Codona, a Roma Gypsy and chairman of the National Travellers Action Group.

"I'm very proud of Lewis Hamilton. It's fantastic what he's doing for the reputation of the country, absolutely outstanding.

"I would never think of calling that boy a certain derogatory word - that's what 'pikey' is to me and my community."

He senses that it is gaining popularity as a term of abuse because people have realised how insulting it is.

Slang expert Tony Thorne says "pikey" was being used as far back as the 16th Century but has only become more offensive in the mainstream in the past four or five years.

"Teenagers have been using it for the last few years to replace 'chav'. It's used pejoratively as someone who is sub-proletariat like 'gypsy' or 'gyppo' was used in the 1940s and 50s."

It used to be a word only used among country people who were speaking disapprovingly of a tramp.

Social prejudice

Brundle probably thinks he can still use the word "pikey" in that innocent way, but his attitude is naive, says Thorne, because it has become an insult and no-one would accept it as a description of themselves.

When used now in urban circles, it usually means a person is beyond the class system, someone without an identity who doesn't matter, and is off the social radar, Thorne suggests. Only in the villages is it likely to have retained its ethnic association with the traveller or gypsy community.

Boris Johnson and David Cameron
Is "posh-bashing" just as bad?

Thorne detects its increased use as reflecting a period in which, post-political correctness, social prejudice is now more acceptable.

"The language of snobbishness and class distinction has come right back, with words like 'posh' or 'pleb' or 'prol', words I thought had disappeared in the late 60s.

"This is the language of social discrimination and it's quite shocking that this language is now being bandied about. It started with 'chav' and then the 'posh' stuff about David Cameron and Boris Johnson."

Often these words are used by people who have always been prejudiced and nasty and who are now feeling they can safely express themselves again, he says, although this "petty snobbishness" has always been lurking below the surface of public debate.

But not everyone believes the word is quite so politically charged.

In his Daily Mail column, Des Kelly wrote: "To consider pikey a racial slur is as stupid as believing the word 'hippy' has racist connotations, or that 'hoodie' is offensive.

"Ban pikey, and then you might as well outlaw chav, townie, trailer trash, Hooray Henry, goth, Sloane, tinker and many more fairly innocuous labels."


Here is a selection of your comments.

I am Irish living in the UK for the last 4 years and I have been called a "pikey" in the workplace. It is an offensive word however in the instance of this report I don't deem it to be offensive. I do however take great offence when my colleague thinks its funny to win a debate he mutters the word "pikey".
Nina, Northampton

I agree that we need to preserve a sense of humour in the face of passing insults and not be so touchy. I have my first experience, at 43, of being called an 'old bag' recently. I guess I should just take it on the chin, both of them.
Betty, UK

I'd never heard the term until it was used in the film Snatch. I'd suggest that its use in this film may have helped to re-popularise it.
Kev Williams, York

Given that Martin Brundle lives in East Anglia, I think it's safe to say he was using it as a colloquial expression (and a humorous remark) and I agree with Daily Mirror columnist Kelly that hippy and hoodie are similarly used.
Hayley Gilks, France

In my high school in the late 1990s and early 2000s, 'pikey' was used instead of 'chav' - but unlike what Tony Thorne says, it seems to have actually preceded chav, at least in South-West London. Only recently has chav gained widespread acceptance. Further, it wasn't the language of social discrimination but, if anything, cultural discrimination: my school was primarily middle-class, so those called 'pikeys' were middle-class boys who spoke in what is now called 'Jafaican,' and behaved badly etc(like, as we would have said at middle-school, 'hard nuts' - the inverted commas are purposefully used, because they thought they were so 'hard'). Outside of school, they would be identified due to wearing what are now deemed chav clothes, but part of the reason for calling these 'pikeys' in a derogatory manner was that they were NOT dressing, speaking, and acting like that out of circumstance; they purposefully did it to be cool. It was both humourous and depressing.
James C, London, England

To equate the word pikey with "the N-word" is to equate a dislike of the attitude and disruption caused to a society by some traveller groups with slavery and the historic treatment of some people as subhuman based on the race. Attitude like that is far more insulting that the naive use of a debatable term.
Peter, Luton

Peter from Luton: don't forget, the gypsies WERE treated as subhuman and were second only to the Jews as subjects for extermination in WW2 Europe. So they may well be sensitive to a perceived growth in prejudice.
Mike, London

Am I the only one on here who considers the use of this word extremely offensive!? We all know that it is a derogatory term and we are in an advanced enough age where political correctness is a co-requisite for a civilised society, it is certainly not "madness". I think it is correct that this underhand comment should be investigated and appropriate action taken!
Danny, Blackpool

All I want to say to the seven people who phoned in to complain is get a life. There are far more important things affecting us now than the need to send politically correct officials out running around like headless chickens investigating a man who in all honesty meant nothing offensive.
Michael Clark, Chesham

I live in Mitcham, south London. We have always had a large "Gypsy" population and as a child in the sixties I played with a large local family of "Gypsys". One of the grans told me that the name pikey was a term for the ones that used to steal the pike kept for food by the monks of Merton Abbey. She also told me of the hawks they would keep to pull down the Doves and Pigeons they also kept and that to get caught doing either was a very serious offence as the birds were protected.
Gerry, Mitcham

How much more are we going to allow the 'PC' brigade to restrict our freedoms. I watched the program and the use of the word was not, in my opinion, intended to be derogatory or insulting. It must be very difficult when conducting live unscripted interviews and this is one more example of how ridiculous things are becoming.
Mike Smith, Huntingdon, Cambs

One problem with Des Kelly's list of examples; I'm quite happy to be called a Goth - even if I don't have the hair for it nowadays. Being called a greebo is another matter...
Warren, Reading, UK

Another example of political correctness gone mad. It isn't the word itself that is offensive, but how it is used, in what context and in what manner. We are all aware that 'travellers' have a reputation for laying tarmac, and it was obviously used in connection to this in a light hearted manner. It seem that certain people within minorities will travel a long way to be offended. Grow a thicker skin, develop a sense of humour and encourage people to break their stereotype behaviours.
Andy, Overseas

I don't have the slightest interest in the racial origins of the people it is applied to, only in the way they behave. Not allowing any form of insult is an attack against free speech, and the start of mind control.
Mike Farnden, Ringwood

Delighted to hear that this kind of language is finally being recognised for the offensive term it is. It was becoming far too mainstream and acceptable.
Eva, Glasgow

'Pikey' is a word that has been fairly frequently heard for some years now within the middle-class world I live in. Generally, it seems to be used and received as a mildly humorous insult, used in a context which intends no hostility towards Travellers. I've never really perceived it to be any more offensive than calling something or someone 'gay' (the use of 'gay' as a form of insult in recent times having been previously covered by these pages)
Allan Moore, Chippenham

I have been called "Pikey" many times because of my name and I am not bothered in the slightest. However I can understand that "Pikey" used as slang for Irish "Travellers" could be mildly insulting, as mildly insulting as calling someone "posh"! Irish travellers are a proud and tough community who can give as good as they might get and I am sure they have their own names for those who do not travel and live in their own houses.
Nigel Arpike, Aylesbury

The term pikey has been used in the same context as the word "chav" for at least eight years in my memory - it sums up the tracksuit wearing, peaked cap-to-the-sky "elite" that seem to create the stereotypes given to teenagers. If it affects the Romani and offends them, then I don't personally believe they are truly Romani. Saying that however, I'm sure it could be seen in the same context as the word "Nomadi" in Italian, which, for all rights and purposes has the same effect.
A Vincent, Portsmouth

I think the British sense of humour needs to win out over the PC brigade and we need a little more common sense, there are FAR more important things going on in the world to waste column inches on this. I guess this may well turn into the media led witch hunt that it normally does. Perhaps we could have the same witch hunt against the many hedge fund owners who are trying to bankrupt us all as we speak !!
Paul Matthews, Guildford




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