First, strip the words of their meaning. Then strip the people of their rights

“When looking at how Romani people and Travellers are portrayed in the media, it’s easy to get fixated on the negativity of the coverage alone. Of equal importance is the question of what the words used actually mean and how they are manipulated.”

Damian Le Bas argues that stripping important ethnic terms of their meaning can be more dangerous than any amount of negative coverage.

LONDON, July 2013. The summer sun slowly rises over one of London’s wealthiest streets. As the peachy dawn comes glinting over the polished glass, the showroom chrome, the brand new bonnets of cars behind the windows, its rays are also felt on the eyes of men and women asleep, just ten or twenty yards away.

On the grassy area fenced in thick black steel that parts the rushing traffic of Park Lane, a group of Romanian Roma had been sleeping rough for over a year. This was to be the day they’d be evicted. The police swept in, the latex medical gloves they wore silently seeming to say “beware of filth”.

Homeless Rough Sleeper

Homeless Rough Sleeper (Photo credit: Deadly Sirius)

Within days, the papers indignantly told us, they were back: “Park Lane gypsies are already back just three days after they were cleared by police”. “Members of the Roma camp laughed and chatted as they were entertained by an accordion player with their possessions scattered around them,” wrote reporter Chris Greenwood. “Some of the Romanian travellers insist they have come to Britain looking for work… Others simply state they are waiting for the authorities to provide them with jobs and accommodation and are in no rush to go anywhere.” As for the actual Roma individuals, no names were given: perhaps they weren’t offered; perhaps they just aren’t needed by a readership happy to view an entire ethnic group in terms of a homogeneous blot on the glitz of their capital city.

We can disagree with the tone of the coverage; with the journalistic balance; with press attitudes towards Romani people and how they feed into popular prejudice. These things are all very important, and must be continually contested.

Beyond these issues, though, something far more sinister is going on: an activity which may be partly done in innocence linked to a tradition of inaccurate use of words, but is more often likely to stem from a homogenizing political agenda that has surely been absorbed by journalists. Even to point this out is to risk being accused of playing the “divide-and-conquer” game, so I will try to explain what I mean very carefully.

How long ago it now seems that we watched in slow-motion horror as the hell of Big Fat Gypsy Weddings was unveiled before the world. How intriguing it was to be told by a cut-glass, faceless English voice dripping with old colonial prejudice, that not only did being a Gypsy make us violent, shady and uneducated: the same old stereotypes which have existed for centuries. The voice also explained how no Gypsy women ever go to work; how their wedding day is the sole crescendo of their entire life; and how men revel in this misogynistic set-up and start revelling in it in their teens when they “get hold of a girl and beat her for a kiss”.

‘But the camera crew can only film what’s there,’ we were told, as though ‘filming what’s there’ somehow excuses your choice to avoid filming or describing anything which might threaten the sheen on your pre-selected narrative: for instance, the fact that British Romani women were often the main breadwinners in their families for several hundreds of years.

Amid the chorus of justifiable anger at this manipulative dross, many Romani people emphasised that in the face of such misleading media, it is all the more important to keep a grip on historical truth. The use of the word “Gypsy” by the programme’s creators was at best flippant and mostly concerned with its marketability; at worst deliberately misleading about the word’s history of usage and meaning. The word “Gypsy[1]” evolved in the English language from the word “Egyptian”, a misnomer applied to the first Romani immigrants to Britain because of their dark complexion and strange appearance. This is an etymological fact, so Channel 4 can’t tell me that they filmed a different side.

The latter-day usages and meanings of “Gypsy” spring from and are informed by this original sense. ‘I’m such a gypsy’, the aspiring world-traveller says, with implicit reference to historical Romani nomadism. ‘They call us pikeys, Gypsies,’ as I have heard Irish Travellers say, in tacit and truthful acknowledgement of the overlap in way of life which links Romani and Irish Traveller people in Britain, and has led to intermarriage, swapping of ancestral words and co-operation in business. The resultant shared exposure to hate and harassment also binds our peoples, and should of course strengthen the bonds of solidarity. But to simply go ahead and call a programme which is largely not about Romani people “My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding” is disingenuous and cannot be excused.

The problem is, it was easy to paint those who made this simple point as anti-Irish Traveller, or as pawns in a larger game of divide-and-rule which sought to weaken the travelling communities by pitting them against each other. This is the trap awaiting those who remind us to take care how we choose our words: tread carefully, lest your request for the truth be painted and spun as something else.

In his appendix to Nineteen Eighty-Four, “The Principles of Newspeak”, George Orwell described how the creators of a language sculpted for totalitarian ends went about their task. It was done

“ partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever. To give a single example. The word free still existed in Newspeak, but it could only be used in such statements as ‘This dog is free from lice’ or ‘This field is free from weeds’. It could not be used in its old sense of ‘politically free’ or ‘intellectually free’ since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed even as concepts, and were therefore of necessity nameless. Quite apart from the suppression of definitely heretical words, reduction of vocabulary was regarded as an end in itself, and no word that could be dispensed with was allowed to survive. Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum.”[2]

What we see happening in the media around words such as “gypsy/Gypsy” and “traveller/Traveller” is more complex than this. Rather than seeking, like Orwell’s fascist re-coders, to restrict the “unorthodox” meanings of these words, the aim seems to be to stretch them just enough to make sure they keep their long-standing ‘dog whistle’ status, while making room for the fresh targets of the whistling.

Take the description by the journalist Amy Jones of “one of the poshest postcodes in Britain, yet just a Champagne cork’s pop away is a squalid, stinking gypsy camp”. What exactly is going on in this sentence? There are the meanings on the surface: the references to squalor and bad smells, and their tethering to Romani people via the word “gypsy”. Then there is the failure to capitalise “gypsy”, which supports the notion that these people are not an ethnic group deserving of a proper name, but a kind of sub-ethnic group, the scurf of civilisation, whose name we can’t capitalise because that would make us racists. Then we have the heart-warming implication that “gypsies” don’t belong around posh postcodes and Champagne corks.

Below even these deplorable senses, though, is the manipulation of other terms. What does “gypsy camp” mean? Many British Romanies and Irish Travellers will call the permanent caravan site that they live on a “camp”. Many non-Travellers use the word in the same way. So by using the word here, about the clearly impermanent habitation of a London space, all the baggage of debates about Traveller accommodation is swiftly imported into talk about Roma people sleeping rough. The genuine problems faced by both communities escape mention, while the fears they evoke in others are bound together to make them a single, problem group.

If you don’t believe me, try these other examples. Daily Mail journalist Chris Greenwood, in the first article quoted above alone, refers to  “Park Lane gypsies”, “Romanian gypsies”, “the Roma camp”, “Roma gypsies”, “Romanian travellers”, “Romani gypsies”, “the Roma”, “the Romanian rough sleepers”, “the Romanians”, and “Romanian citizens”: a bewildering array of different, but similar sounding, terms.

beggar and man

(Photo credit: jordi.martorell)

Is Greenwood simply trying to get a good mix of nouns and adjectives in for the sake of good newspaper copy? Or is he deploying the widest possible variety of words associated with ‘the Gypsy problem’, re-coding the meanings of each by association, in an almost incredibly irresponsible use of language? Romanian non-Roma will decry the use of “Romanian”[3]. British Romani Gypsies will decry the use of “Romani gypsies”. I will decry the use of “travellers” to link this story to popular concerns about Traveller accommodation. And all the while, the argument against such cheap tactics is further complicated by the genuine historical ties that bind the Roma to Romani Gypsies, and the latter to Irish Travellers.
Just for good measure, Greenwood refers to “bushes … transformed into stinking open cesspools”, making the same dig about Gypsies and human waste which the Conservative councillor Mark Coxshall couldn’t resist when he recently referred to planned site as a “Big Fat Gypsy cesspit”. Those who don’t think such distortions of the meanings of words are important would do well to remember the Nazis’ efforts to re-cast Jews and Romani people as vermin, and the resultant effect on the psyches of those who collaborated in their genocide.

What are we supposed to do about all this? In my experience, the prejudice runs so deep that the stick is mightier than the carrot. That is to say, encouraging journalists to learn the facts about Romani people and ethnic Travellers in the interests of fair reporting seems destined to fail, especially when we see how a reporter like Chris Greenwood, while apparently knowing what all the words actually mean, decides to then use them in juxtaposition to drive prejudice in new directions. Complaining, lobbying politicians and getting broadcasters slapped on the wrist might be the way. I live in hope that one day the tide will decisively turn, but in the meantime, I take small consolation from not being on the side that is fuelling this hateful malaise.


[1] Gypsy” is often used to translate words like “Zigeuner” and “Cigany”, which have also been used to describe Romani people, but its history is completely separate from these others, which originate from the Greek word “Atsinganoi” and therefore mean “untouchable” or “unclean”. “Gypsy”, in that it comes from “Egyptian”, may not be historically accurate, but neither does it have the immediately offensive sense of these other words.

[2] Orwell, George, Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1st World Library-Literary Society Edition (published online), 2004; p373. Accessed via Google Books.

[3] It is already hard enough to explain that “Roma”/”Romani” and “Romanian” are completely unconnected words. The internet is awash with angry comments about how the Roma have stolen the Romanian name (yes, they are even thieves when it comes to words), even though “Roma” comes from the Indic stem Rom/Dom, meaning “man”, and “Romanian” comes from the Latin for Rome, the Italian city.

Damian Le Bas