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Last Updated: Monday, 21 March, 2005, 15:25 GMT
Blurred history of Gypsy terms
Gypsy caravan
Discrimination has led to numerous terms to describe Gypsies
Although the terms Gypsy and traveller have become largely synonymous, there is a distinction - albeit one that is blurred.

Gypsy has a racial definition - for a people originating in north-west India who left in the first millennium AD, mainly heading north and west and spreading to most parts of Europe by the 16th century.

Gypsies also often refer to themselves as Roma or Romani, particularly in eastern and central Europe. The Romany language is of Indo-Iranian origin.

These terms are capitalised because of the distinct racial group, conversely the use of traveller - not always with a capital - refers only to a person or group's lifestyle.


Some analysts believe traveller is the latest in a long line of terms taken up by members of the community to avoid discrimination.

The word Gypsy had been thought by some scholars to derive from "Egyptian", from where the Roma people were wrongly believed to originate.

Roma in Albania
Roma is the definition most usual in central and eastern Europe

Many now believe that at some point Roma people invented the name to conceal their origin and avoid persecution.

It could be argued that the use of two or three words is still not enough.

Roma, Gypsies or travellers in using the words may be defining their ethnicity, race, occupation, language, culture or nomadic heritage.

Then there is the blurring within the various ethnic communities.

Without even considering continental Europe, there are in the UK Irish Travellers, Scots Travellers (Nachins), Welsh Gypsies (Kale) and English Gypsies (Romanichals) among others.

There are also Travelling Showpeople (Fairground Travellers), Boat Dwellers (Bargees) and Circus Travellers.

Then there are New Travellers or New Age Travellers, often defined as people who have made a conscious decision to adopt an alternative lifestyle, seeking a perceived greater community spirit.

Others in the group adopt the lifestyle because of social or economic circumstances.

Static homes

Nor does traveller necessarily confirm to its dictionary definition of "a person who travels" or "someone who changes location".

A traditional caravan burning at a Gypsy funeral in Wales
A traditional caravan burning at a Gypsy funeral in Wales

Members of the community retain their heritage even if they become static by taking settled housing.

Many of the ethnic continental Roma now in the UK are in fixed homes.

Given the discrimination that has arisen in many countries to Gypsies or travellers, numerous derogative terms have also arisen.

The Commission for Racial Equality issues media guidelines to avoid prejudice, warning that terms such as "tinker" and "itinerant" are highly offensive.

One definition that was posted on the popular online dictionary site, Dictionary.com, was last year withdrawn after protests by Roma lobbyists that it was "offensive and racist".

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