Gypsy references require caution

By · Monday, September 20th, 2010

For many years, I have been giving an editing exercise to students that includes a reference to “Gypsy.” The idea is to see whether the students will look up the term in the AP Stylebook and recognize whether the term is used properly or decide that the term is perpetuating a stereotype and should be rewritten or removed.

Interestingly, the term is in the news because of actions in France to remove the group of people, Roma, also referred to as Gypsies. You’ll also find the term in all kinds of references to gypsy cab.

Check it out yourself. Go to LexisNexis or to your local database and search for the term “Gypsy” and “gypsy cab.” What do you find? Count the number of times the term appears in a month. Ask yourself whether the term is used properly or perpetuates a stereotype. If you were the editor of that copy, would you have published the term as properly used? Or, would you have found need to rewrite it or delete it?

Words and phrases become accepted in our language when they go unchallenged. We need to educate ourselves so we can do our jobs effectively. I have heard before the admonition: “You are sanitizing the news.” I do not believe that fairly representing a group of people is “sanitizing” the news about them. I believe it is being sensitive to them.

Where do you fall in this discussion? If you aren’t sure, try this simple exercise: In the references to “Gypsy” that you find in your search, replace the word with a term that identifies yourself. It has worked for me.

Emilie Davis


Good post, Emilie.

My “favorite” example of this type of thing is when people (and it even appears in print) say some form of “at the bottom of the totem pole.”

It’s the type of phrase that is so common in our culture that many people would not flag it as insensitive to Native Americans.

Gypsy, I agree, is like that, too. As Americans, we don’t have a clear sense of what it means, so we don’t get the larger inference. But, as you point out, as journalists we should.

you make a good point. I remember when I was studying guitar in Andalucia and some of the best Flamenco players and singers were Gypsies, or Gitanos in Spanish. I asked what made people Gitano, and I was told that these darker-skinned people originated from what is now Pakistan, which is also true of the Roma. At the time, because many Gitanos were lower-class, there was much prejudice against them, though people loved their music. (Kind of like a similar situation decades earlier in the US.) The term “gypsy” carries enough negative connotations without us using it carelessly to reinforce stereotypes.