I received email questioning my use of the term gypped, and apparently I’m not the first. I have used the word “gyp” both as a noun (“What a gyp”) and as a verb (“You got gypped”) all my life to mean “a fraud” and “to be cheated”, respectively. I don’t recall where I picked it up, but at my elementary school the term was ubiquitous and used to describe everything from Star Wars Trading Card transactions to unexpected pop quizzes.
After using the word once in college, though, someone told me that it was a racial slur against Gypsies. Lacking large populations of Gypsies in the Pacific Northwest, this had honestly never occurred to me. And I was still skeptical. After all, I was told this at The Evergreen State College, Washington State’s stronghold of Political Correctness, where you can’t say anything aloud (“I like peanut butter!”) without someone announcing that you’ve just inadvertently committed ethnic slander of some sort or another. But soon thereafter I overheard someone using the word “jew” as a verb in the same sense (“He jewed me out of twenty dollars”), and that so clearly struck me as pejorative that I reconsidered my use of “gyp”.
These days I rarely say “gyp,” mainly because, having used it a lot in third grade, I tend to regard it as a “kid’s word” on par with “lame-o”. But I do still employ the term on occasion, so I guess I’d better find out the truth once and for all.
First stop, the dictionary. Merriam-Webster makes no reference to Gypsies in the definition (which it gives as “noun: FRAUD, SWINDLE; verb: CHEAT”), but does cite its etymology as “probably short for gypsy”. Tally: one vote for “derogatory”.
Next we head over to World Wide Words, where we hear from someone who’s had an experience exactly opposite of my own: all their life they thought “gyp” was derogatory until someone told them that it wasn’t. Michael Quinion responds, “It seems highly probable [that ‘gyp’ came from ‘Gypsy’]. However, direct evidence is lacking, and the term arose in the US, where gypsies have been less common than in Europe.” He goes on to mention that “gyp” also means “a college servant” (this was also listed in Webster’s), and suggests that this might have been the source of the “cheat” connotation. He also states “Even if the verb does come from gypsy, most people who use it probably don’t link the two ideas.” Tally: Half a vote for “derogatory against Gypsies,” half a vote for “derogatory against college servants,” one vote for “not intentionally derogatory in either case on the presupposition of ignorance”.
Truth me told, despite all my research I never found anyone convincingly link “gyp” to anything other than the word “Gypsy” — even the alternate meaning of “gyp,” denoting a college student, seems to be an abbreviation of Gypsy. So, in that sense, I guess “derogatory” carries the day. However, I will personally vouch for the fact that many of the people using the word (at least around here) make no mental connection whatsoever between the term and people. This morning, for example, I asked The Queen if she used “gypped,” and she said that she did; when I told her about the possible “gyp = Gypsy = racial slur” link, she looked rather aghast at the revelation.
Although my Googling found lots of people asserting that the word “gyp” is offensive, I didn’t find a single instance where someone said that they, personally, were offended by the term — except insofar as they were offended because they assumed that the word was offensive to others. A similar thing seems to have occurred with the word squaw, which many people (myself included) think of as a racial slur, even though the people it’s allegedly slandering don’t have a problem with it. All of which raises a vexing philosophical point: can something be offensive without actually offending? And given that “Gypsies” aren’t even “Gypsies” anymore (they prefer to be known as the Roma), what’s the statute of limitation on stuff like this? Would it be okay to say that that you’d been “Aztec’d out of twenty dollars”?
The comments are open, and I’m interested in hearing what readers think. In particular (a) do you use the word “gyp,” (b) is its usage prevalent in your area, (c) were you aware that it is considered offensive by some, and (d) are you personally offended by its use?
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