Monday, March 21, 2005

Gone with the raggle-taggle gypsies-oh

So, fond as I am of traditional English folk music (in small doses, and not in the company of beardy blokes), I'm quite happy with the word "gypsies". For me, and in this context, it invokes fabulously romantic scenarios, in which women run away on wild nights with ravishing strangers, their shoes and their oppression quite cast off and their hair streaming freely down their backs. Then there's the "gyptians" variation of the word used by Philip Pullman in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and again it has positive connotations, as these characters are portrayed as courageous salts of the earth, in touch with the spiritual world, and living freely and fairly in close communities.

But out there in the real world, it's by no means an easy word, and if you pay any attention whatsoever to the rampant electioneering all over the news, it's not hard to see why. The Conservative party has launched an election pledge to "crack down" on travellers and/or Travellers, gypsies and/or or gyptians, the Roma and/or the Romany. Each word, used to refer to more or less the same group of people, has different connotations, and although "travellers", capitalised or not, is the politically correct term used by local councils, education authorities and some newspapers, not everyone it refers to likes it, and there are whole minefields of deliberate or inadvertent offence in the use of the alternatives. And with the all the political and media election campaigns busy tooling up, both the word and its referents are hot potatoes. Check it out.

1) Click here Blurred history of Gypsy terms for the BBC's handy guide to the different words.
2) Surf the websites of the major newspapers (links are in the links section if you scroll down below here) for articles on this news item and see which words each of the papers uses most frequently.
3) Do a search in the British National Corpus (link also in the links section) to see how each of the words is used in this massive database of speech and writing.


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