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Myth of a Nomad
Romani Nation

Myth of a Nomad
  • Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society : Ser.... (by )
  • Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society; Vol. ... Volume Vol. 1 (by )
  • The Gypsies (by )
  • Gypsy Sorcery and Fortune Telling : Illu... (by )
  • Nights and Days on the Gypsy Trail : Thr... (by )
  • Journal of the Gypsy Lore Society; Vol. ... Volume Vol. 3 (by )
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Names are as important as the histories embedded within them. They imbue the power of both insidious implication and outright reference, revealing ignorance and tolerance. Incorrectly naming anything or anyone is the first step towards a host of other problems. One such name is “gypsy.”

It began with a basic misidentification. Roma people migrated in one huge wave from northwest India to Europe around 1,500 years ago. Today they are the largest minority in Europe today with over 11 million people. The Europeans thought they were Egyptian, and thus prescribed them the exonym "gypsy." 

Mislabelling is often symptomatic of deeper distrust. The complex history of the Roma people tells an immigration story that never quite got put to rest. Discriminatory laws and regimes that kept them on the margins further exacerbated their struggles as a misunderstood and nonterritorial people. In 1554, English Parliament passed a law that promised death to anyone for being a gypsy. During Nazi reign, they were dubbed Zigeuner or "untouchable" and were killed and held in concentration camps. Even today, the Roma people endure lingering racism and societal discrimination, though many have long been integrated in their localities all around Europe and America.

Although some take pride in the gypsy name, others consider the term a pejorative, as it is not only inaccurate, but implies otherness, exile, and underhanded, deceitful living. Many non-Romani have adopted the name “gypsy” to describe a state of mythic transience, which can be taken as both sensationalizing a people with years of hardship and dehumanizing them into fairytale-like wanderers with no place in the modern world.

It's now known that their ancestors are both European and Indian, and much of their lineage can be traced back to northwest India.

For more on the Roma people and historical attempts at recording their culture, check out The Gypsies by Charles Godfrey Leland, The Journal of Gypsy Lore Society Volumes I, II, and III, and Nights and Days on the Gypsy Trail by Irving Brown.

By Thad Higa

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