Also spelled "gipsy". The correct Romany is "Rom", and refers to any member of a dark Caucasoid people originating in northern India but living in modern times worldwide, principally in Europe. Most Gypsies speak Romany, a language closely related to the modern Indo-European languages of northern India, as well as the major language of the country in which they live. It is generally agreed by anthropologists that Gypsy groups left India in repeated migrations and that they were in Persia by the 11th century, in southeastern Europe by the beginning of the 14th, and in western Europe by the 15th century. By the second half of the 20th century, Gypsies had spread throughout North and South America and to Australia.

True Gypsies refer to themselves by one generic name, Rom (rhotic "r", to rhyme with "dome", meaning "man" or "husband"), and to all non-Gypsies by another term, gage (pronounced "gahd, an exclusive term with a pejorative connotation meaning "bumpkin", "yokel", or "barbarian").

The migratory nature of the Gypsies, their absence in official census returns, and their popular classification with other nomadic groups makes the estimation of the total number of Gypsies a formidable task. Estimates of the total Gypsy population range from 2,000,000 to 5,000,000. A significant statistical picture cannot be gained from the sporadic reporting by those studying Gypsies in different countries. The majority of Gypsies were still in Europe in the late 20th century, especially in the Slavic-speaking lands of central Europe and the Balkans. Large numbers live in the Czech and Slovak republics, Hungary, Yugoslavia and neighbouring countries, Bulgaria, and Romania.

The exotic stereotype of the nomadic Gypsy has often disguised the fact that fewer and fewer may have remained truly migratory, although writers on Gypsies disagree on this point. However, it is clear that nomadism by the Gypsies has been largely insular in character. All nomadic Gypsies migrate at least seasonally along patterned routes that ignore national boundaries. They also follow along a chain, as it were, of kin or tribal links. The Gypsies' own supposed disposition to wander has been forcibly furthered by exile or deportation. Only 80 years after their first appearance in western Europe in the 15th century, they fell under the penalty of banishment in almost all the nations of western Europe. Despite their systematic exile, or transportation abroad, however, Gypsies continued to reappear in one guise or another back in the countries that they had left.

All unsettled tribes who live among settled peoples seem to become convenient scapegoats. So it is with the Gypsies who have regularly been accused by the local populace of many evils as a prelude to later official and legal persecution. Their relations with the authorities in the host country have been marked by consistent contradiction. Official decrees were often aimed at settling or assimilating them, yet local authorities systematically refused them the bare hospitality of a campsite. During World War II the Nazis murdered an estimated 900,000 Gypsies. French laws in modern times forbade them campsites and subjected them to police supervision, yet the Gypsies were taxed and drafted for military service like ordinary citizens. Spain and Wales are two countries often cited as examples where the Gypsies have become settled, if not wholly assimilated. In modern times, the Socialist countries of Eastern Europe attempted programs of enforced settlement to end Gypsy migration.

Traditionally Gypsies have pursued occupations that allowed them to maintain an itinerant life on the perimeters of settled society. The men were livestock traders, animal trainers and exhibitors, tinkers (metalsmiths and utensil repairmen), and musicians; the women told fortunes, sold potions, begged, and worked as entertainers. Before the advent of veterinary medicine, many farmers looked to Gypsy livestock dealers for advice on herd health and husbandry. Damaged pots, pans, and metal utensils were saved for repair by the Gypsy tinker.

Modern Gypsy life reflects the "progress" of the gage world. Travel is by caravans of cars, trucks, and trailers, and livestock trading has given way to the sale of used cars and trailers. Although mass production of stainless steel pots and pans has rendered the tinker obsolete, some urban Gypsies have found employment as car mechanics and auto body repairmen. Some Gypsies are still itinerant, but many others have adopted a settled lifestyle, practicing their trades or working as unskilled wage labourers. Traveling circuses and amusement parks also provide employment for modern Gypsies as animal trainers and handlers, concession operators, and fortune-tellers.

The archetypal Gypsy family consists of a married couple, their unmarried children, and at least one married son, his wife and their children. Upon marriage, a young Gypsy couple typically lives with the husband's parents while the young wife learns the ways of her husband's group. Ideally, by the time an older son is ready to move away with his family, a younger son will have married and joined the household with his new wife. Although the practice declined significantly in the late 20th century, traditional Gypsy marriages were arranged by the elders in the family or band (vitsa), to strengthen political and kinship ties to other families, bands, or occasionally, tribes. A central feature of Gypsy marriages was the payment of a bride-price to the parents of the bride by the parents of the groom.

Gypsies recognise tribal divisions among themselves with some sense of territoriality emphasized by certain cultural and dialectal differences. Some anthropologists have delineated three main tribal groups:

  1. the Kalderash (smiths who came from the Balkans and then from central Europe and are the most numerous)
  2. the Gitanos (French Gitans, mostly from the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, and Southern France, usully entertainers)
  3. the Manush (French Manouches, also known as Sinti, mostly in France, Alsace, and Germany, often traveling showmen and circus people).

Each of these main divisions was further divided into two or more subgroups distinguished by occupational specialisation or territorial origin, or both.

There has never been on record any one authority, either congress or "king", accepted by all Gypsies, although "international" congresses of Gypsies have been held in Munich, Moscow, Bucharest, Sofia and Rowne. However, if Gypsy kings are a romantic popular fiction, the existence of political authorities among the Gypsies is an established fact. The use of the word "tribe" by writers on Gypsies has been ambiguous. Those who affected noble titles such as "duke" or "count" in their early historical dealings with local nationals were probably no more than chieftains of bands, who moved in groups of anything from 10 to a few hundred households. These chieftains (voivodes) are elected for life from among outstanding families of the group, and the office is not inheritable. Their power and authority vary according to the size of the band, its traditions, and its relationships with other bands within a tribe.

It was the voivode who acted as treasurer for the whole band, decided the pattern of its migration, and became its spokesman to local municipal authorities. He governed through a council of elders that also consulted with the phuri dai, a senior woman in the band. The phuri dai's influence was strong, particularly in regard to the fate of the women and children, and seemed to rest much on the evident earning power and organisation of the women as a group within the band.

Strongest among the Gypsy institutions of social control was the Romany kris, meaning both the body of customary law and values of justice as well as the ritual and formation of the tribunal of the band. Basic to the Gypsy code were the all-embracing concepts of fidelity, cohesiveness, and reciprocity within the recognised political unit. The ultimate negative sanction of the kris tribunal, which dealt with all disputes and breaches of the Gypsy code, was excommunication from the band. However, a sentence of ostracism might exclude the individual from participation in certain band activities and punish him with menial tasks. In some cases, rehabilitation was granted by the elders and followed by a feast of reconciliation.

Bands are made up of vitsas, which are name groups of extended families with common descent either patrilineal or matrilineal, as many as 200 strong. A large vitsa may have its own chief and council. Vitsa membership can be claimed if offspring result through marrying into the vitsa. Loyalty and economic cooperation are expected at the household rather than the vitsa level. There is no generic term for household in Romany. For cooperation, a man probably relies on a circle of meaningful kinsmen with whom he is physically close and not, at the time, in dispute.

Gypsies have been one of the vehicles through which folk beliefs and practices have been disseminated and, in areas where they are settled (e.g., Romania), have been positive guardians of "national" customs, dances, and the like, which were disappearing among the peasantry in the second half of the 20th century. Although Gypsies have a rich oral tradition, they have contributed little to the world of written literature.

Increasingly in the second half of the 20th century, Gypsies struggled with contradictions in their culture. No longer did they defend themselves so much against persecution from a hostile society but rather against erosion of their lifestyles from urban influences in industrialised societies. Themes of familial and ethnic loyalty typified in Gypsy music helped to preserve the conservatism of Gypsy ways, yet some of the younger and more talented exponents of this music have been drawn away by the material rewards in the outside world. Integrated housing, economic independence, and intermarriage with the gage have undermined Gypsy law.


  • The Gypsy Lore Society on
  • My cousins Rosemary and Susan, with thanks for their patience with this ignorant gage.
  • as always,, which knows everything.

In memory of Auntie Lil, who died last week