What Is a Gypsy?

A Gypsy is a mystery and an image of freedom and creativity. At least that's how Gypsies seem. In reality, a Gypsy is a member of a subculture with its own stringent rules and expectations, as well as its own way of life.

The people known as Gypsies seldom call themselves that. In their own clans many refer to themselves as Roma. Others name themselves Kale, Sinti, Romnichal, Kalderash, Manush, Gitano or something else entirely. The most common group name is Romani.

Gypsy history

The work of geneticists and linguists shows that the Romani came from India, probably no later than the 11th century. Their language is similar to Indian speech patterns of that time, and their genetics match certain Indian populations.

The word Gypsy was first used by Europeans who thought these strange wanderers came from Egypt. Some have settled down, but many still trave-usually in cars instead of the brightly painted wagons they rode centuries ago.

Other ethnic groups travel, as well, and settled people call them gypsies as well. The Scottish Travelers are called the Summer Walkers, or the Ceardannan, which means the Craftsmen. They speak a beautiful secret language, a mixture of Gaelic and Scottish. The Irish Travelers, also known as the Pavee, have a secret language called Shelta. The genetics of these sometimes blond gypsies prove that the Travelers are not related to the Romani.

Gypsy occupations

Not all the Roma are nomads. The Gitanos settled in Andalusia, enriching the Spanish culture. Some are famous flamenco dancers, and others are noted musicians. In fact, the Roma include famous musicians around the world.

Among traveling Romani, many women tell fortunes for money with tarot cards or by reading the lines in people's palms. Men never tell fortunes. Among themselves, most Roma are not superstitious; they do not read one another's palms.

Some men are used-car salesmen whose ancestors were horse traders. Some men still trade horses. In fact, he annual horse fair in Gloucestershire draws many Roma. Some jewelry salesmen had ancestors who were metalworkers.

Irish and Scottish Travelers used to work as tinkers, repairing pots and pans, or as knackers, buying very sick horses and sometimes reviving them. Nowadays, they often work at home repair, roofing or driveway resurfacing in the United States. Homeowners often distrust their work.


Roma women generally refuse to show their legs. Most Roma consider the top half of the body pure and the lower half unclean. Traditionally, Roma women do not cut their hair, because shorn hair is a punishment for infidelity.

Traditional costumes vary, with Roma in Finland dressing in black velvet, while those of Romania wear bright red prints. Roma often dress just as anyone else does, though perhaps with more flair. Men may wear bright scarves around their necks, and married women wear head scarves.

Marriages are arranged with careful attention to relationships both genetic and interpersonal. Roma marry young and may live with their in-laws for years.

Large segments of the Romani population belong to established religions, many following the Roman Catholic or Evangelical faiths.


Gypsies have long been symbols in literature. Beautiful Esmerelda is not a real Gypsy, but the Gypsy underworld fosters her in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. By contrast, Martin Cruz Smith's first popular books were about Gypsies and illuminated Rom and non-Rom cultures brilliantly.

What can we make of cultures that force people to move on, and then disparage them for being transients? The people called Gypsies have embraced their diaspora and made of it a way of life that many settled people envy.

A Gypsy is not who outsiders think he is. Gypsies are romanticized as symbols of freedom and creativity, yet are often scorned as lying thieves. They can be both, or neither, just as anyone can.

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