Research Day: Gypped

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?

Previous Research Days: Hotel California, Daylight Savings Time, Odds n Ends.

68 thoughts on “Research Day: Gypped

  1. In contrast to your other UK correspondents, I have heard the word ‘Gypped’ (pron. Jipped) in a similar way that ‘jewed’ or ‘welsh’ would be used.

    Gypsies (called ‘Pikeys’ in South-East England) in the UK are about the last people who you can legally discriminate against. Some pubs have a sign outside which says ‘No Travellers’ – which means New Age ‘Eco-Warrior’ Travellers, Irish Travellers (who are an ethnic group from Ireland who are neither Roma or standard Irish), as well as Roma Gypsies.

    Viz comic had a strip called Thieving Gypsy Bastards, which got into legal trouble when a local gypsy tried to prosecute them. It didn’t help his case that he was later imprisoned for stealing cars.

    The word ‘gypped’ reminds me of the word maroon:
    http://www.wavsource.com/tv/looney_tunes/bugs_dope.wav
    http://www.expressionsofsoul.com/id71.html

    Also, Joey Skaggs:
    http://www.joeyskaggs.com/html/jojo.html

    References
    http://www.demon.co.uk/ecoln/tpeople.html

  2. I stopped my use of “gyp” years ago. I now prefer “screwed”. not that I think I would be slandering any gypsies. I just prefer sexual conotations whenever possible…. (did I say that out loud?)

  3. Here’s another idea:

    The term actually originated in Europe where marble was (and still is) the most prized and expensive building material. However it was not uncommon for unscrupulous masons to substitue the similar, but less expensive and less durable material alabaster in all but the most visible locations. This, of course, was done without the owners immediate knowledge.

    Alabaster, if you know your rocks, is a common form of the mineral Gypsum (http://geollab.jmu.edu/Fichter/Minerals/Minerals/gypsumala.html)

    So, when the builder discussed his misdeed with his fellow masons, he would claim that he had really “Gyp”-ped the guy, meaning that he had substituted Gypsum(alabaster) for marble at a tidy, ill-gotten profit.

  4. I’ve used the term before, never thought about where it came from. I learned it while growing up in D.C., not sure if I’d consider its use “prevalent” though.

    It does remind me that as a kid it took me a long time to realize that Polack jokes were offensive, because it never occurred to me that a Polack was a Polish person–I’d always heard Polish people referred to as, well, Polish people so I assumed a Polack was just a dumb guy (of no particular ethnicity) until someone explained it to me one day.

  5. it’s also interesting to note that “gyp” and “gyppy” are the only words in the OED that are composed entirely of descenders.

  6. This is a fasinating conversation line. I wanted to present a point of view from someone who is actually working with Roma in the Czech Republic.

    Being an slang term, none of my collegues here who speak English have ever heard it used, and so cannot be offended by its connotation. But I wanted to point out that even if they knew it was bad, you would most likely not hear any complaints from them. With the level of discrimination they face, skinhead attacks, etc., the context of a word will not matter.

    in fact, i was pointing out that the def. of gypsy on dictionary.com is disgustingly offensive and i will make a complaint (check it out) and the comment i received was ´why bother? changing a definition of a word will not stop racism.´

    what do you think of this?

  7. and read this, off the website: http://www.blacksheepbellydance.com/files/plrom.html

    entitled ´Please call me Rom´

    …I want to tell you about their suffering and the persecution they’ve endured throughout the centuries. I want to tell you how to fight the enemy which is ignorance; to tell you about prejudice and stereotypes. This doesn’t apply only to Rroma. Look how Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Mexicans, Asians, Hippies etc.. are treated in this country, not to mention Gays and Lesbians. These two words: prejudice and ignorance, represent our biggest ENEMIES. But prejudice and ignorance cannot be overcome unless some exchange takes place. So, that is why I am writing this story.

    I was GYPPED. The word “gypped” derives from Gypsy and is a racist slur based on the stereotype that Gypsies always cheat people; it implies that you have been swindled. We have been raised with the expression, (and even today people continue telling it to their children): “If you don’t behave I’m going to leave you out and Gypsies are going to steal you”. Czechs are calling Rroma “dirty Gypsies, horse thieves, uneducated”, etc… Bulgarians are calling us or refer to Rroma as “dark-skinned, villains, incorrigible perpetrators, criminals”, etc… Hungarians are referring to Rroma as “Olive skinned”. In ex-Yugoslavia where I come from, they call us “beggars, dirty Gypsy”, etc…

  8. Speaking of getting screwed over (gyped), for a while I thought that “Indian giver” was a slur until someone told me that, yeah, it’s a slur against the white men who screwed the Native Americans over. So I guess it’s okay to use this one.

  9. I’ve always used words like “gypped”, “gay” and “retarded”, never intentionally slurring gypsies, homosexuals, and folks with down syndrome… when it’s something you’ve grown up using, and is part of common vernacular, it’s hard to stop using it. Also, when you don’t know anyone that’s offended by it, you really don’t have much reason to stop. If I had a gay friend that was offended by it, I might stop… if I had a straight friend who was offended by my using the word “gay”, I would smack them and tell them to shut up :)

  10. i came to this board looking to clear something up.
    i live in Cambridge, UK. firstly, the people employed to clean student rooms might have traditionally been called gyps, but nowadays we call them bedders. in some colleges they do even make your bed for you; clearly intelligence suppresses the ability to carry out simple household chores. however, collective kitchen equipment in college halls are found in “gyp rooms”, which used to be the space reserved for bedders as storerooms. it has absolutely no relation to gypsies.
    secondly, jip in UK English does not mean ‘screwed over’ but irritating and again has no ready connection to gypsies. as someone said earlier, the thing most likely to ‘give you jip’ is a part of your own anatomy. my back is frequently giving me jip.
    thirdly, gypsy comes from the mistaken belief that roma came from egypt and was initially purely descriptive, although i don’t doubt it could be used in a a derogatory fashion, much as ‘white man from seattle’. in the UK no one is even remotely aware that gypsies are in theory roma (rroma if you’re from romania and want to highlight the difference), and gypsy is not per se derogatory, but again descriptive. the term pikey, for gypsy, was put into fashion by the film ‘snatch’ and i find it immensely offensive. it’s use is purely pejorative.
    fourthly, and here’s my question. in cambridge there is a large traveller/gypsy/roma/pikey community but they are far from ‘swarthy’. indeed more often than not they have red hair. this has made me question exactly what the difference is between these terms. i’ve been to eastern europe and met roma; they are racially and culturally distinctive and sadly are widely despised by the non-roma population. it’s true that when brushed past by a roma woman on a train platform you can feel fingers trying at pockets. its also true that marginalized groups around the world will have a go at tourists as easy pickings. and why not. you’re told by the rest of the country that you’re nothing but a horsethief, you can’t get a decent job because of your skin, etc. in the czech republic they frequently carry out surveys which show that most czechs would be happier living next to a drug dealer than a roma. the racism is deepl, deeply ingrained…
    anyway, i’m straying ‘off message’. my question is:
    why do ‘gypsies’ in the UK look more like the descendants of itinerant irishmen than roma? is there a meaningful distinction?

  11. if anyone knows the answer to the above question could you email me to let me know? i will be eternally grateful. thanks.

  12. There is actually a very large Rom (plural)presence in Spokane, Washington. There was a very large scandal in ’86, when a Bar

  13. I am from Australia and the term gypped was also used there in my childhood. I don’t use it myself and have never considered its etymology previously. Sometimes I think we can assume a derogatory meaning where there is none though. For example I have been using the term ‘mongy’ for years to mean bad or ridiculous. This was actually a shortening of the name Mongers, the surname of someone known to a friend who was apparently a bit of an idiot – somone I didn’t know incidentally but I had picked the expression up and it stuck with me. Recently someone heard me use this term and took offense at my percieved slur of mongoloids (a connection it had never even occured to me to make). The point is that gyp really could come from anywhere and it is your own connection with percieved traits that is making you feel offended, not the word itself.

  14. First, “gyp” and “jip” are pronounced exactly the same way — I don’t know why people are making this discussion in this thread about the differing UK and American pronunciations.

    Second, could it be possible that the term Gypsy and gyp share the same root (as noted above by several people), and thus the term Gypsy itself is the derogatory term? That is, using gyp is fine, but calling someone a Gypsy, not so fine?

  15. I’m pretty sure it is short for “Gypsy” but I’m not sure why it would be a big deal. Unless I happen to meet a Gypsy and learn that they are in fact not at all like that, which I haven’t though I’m sure they’re very nice people. Wherever they are.

  16. I too, was just introduced to the connection between “gypped” meaning screwed and “gypsy”. Incidently, this was also in college, The Evergreen State College, which as noted by the original poster in this thread is so PC it has become a constraint, not the liberating ideal it is advertised as.

    I’ve done some (though not extensive) research, and have come to the conclusion that some people say it definitely came from “gypsy”, some say definitely not, but in fact it can not be proven either way. Since the common use of “gypped” is not at all in reference specifically to any group of people, and since there is no evidence that it historically relates, there IS NO CONNECTION. There is no contextual connection, it is not intended as insulting to Rom, nor can it be related historically, although it arguably would not matter even if the only connection was historical.

    What bothers me are the people who say I can not say “gypped”, but they can say “fag” because they are gay, or because they only mean it as gay, without negative connotation. There are gays who are offended by the word, regardless of who says it or what its connotation. That is their right, as it is my right to use “gypped” or “jipped” to mean ripped off, especially given that even those offended by the word know that I personally hold nothing against the Roma people.

    I only ask that people stay consistant. Be offended by all words or not based on their origin, or none at all.

  17. The media tends to portray groups of people differently because of management prejudices. Most of the people that decide what the stories are that will be broadcasted/printed that day of major newscenters are white and middle/upper class. For example, that’s why you see more blacks and hispanics in poorer neighborhoods being chased/ accused/ prosecuted/ suspected for a crime that whites in better off neighborhoods. In many locations, violent crimes committed in a richer neighborhood are given more importance and air time because they are “less expected” and therefore more relevant. Similar crimes in poor neighborhoods are often scimmed over and given an air of “normal”. However, studdies have shown that more crime is committed by suburban youth than urban/ poor youth (I don’t remember if thats the most common source of crime or if its just more compared to the urban ones). Look up some studies on this; you’ll find on an incidence shown vs. incidence occured, many peoples are misrepresented in the media. Latinos are particularly portrayed as troublemakers and black men as violent. It’s all about what the managers *choose* to cover, and they have lots of stereotypes on their own. The media is all about a small group of people deciding on stories they think are relavent, they think are representative, and they think will make get the most viewers or readers for the most amount of money out of advertising.

    And think about it. The media is one of people’s main source of information about the world. They use the news and entertainment to build their picture of the world, and consequently their stereotypes. Some people give more importance to personal experience, but that’s (statistically, if I remember correctly) a minority and even that is problematic for a picture of a whole group. How many people do you know rely on statistics to build a picture of the human race, not to mention examine those statistics to make sure the data is not effected by the stereotypes and prejudice itself (such as poverty in blacks). The media is one of the worst sources for building a picture of the world, yet is the most common source used.

    The media and passed on stereotypes (such as derogatory names and words) keep stereotypes and prejudice alive. If someone from a group such as gypsies or gays repeatedly hears words with a derogatory origin or with what they think is a derogatory origin, regardless of the meaning of the speaker, they are just as susceptible to unconscious associations as non-members. Whether they “object” to it is irrelevant. 1) they may object or feel offended yet may not say anything because of not wanting to sound too politically correct and 2) they will probably consciously or unconsciously absorb the negative association because the word and association exists (regardless of immediate intention), and this usually results in stereotype creation or support. Stereotypes in any form can grow and spread and evolve into prejudice. Self-stereotypes are the most harmful, because the person may come to believe negative “facts” about themselves and even act them out.

    Although everyone has a right to slurs and unintentional slurs and to be offended and to make associations about entire groups of people from TV or from the fact that those associations exists, keep this in mind. If you still don’t care, or think what I said is a load of BS, by all means continue. I admit even stereotypes and prejudice and slurs and slang add diversity to this world, and that is something we won’t get enough of. But just keep this in mind the next time you see the news, or believe “supported” generalizations, or say “thats so (gay/ gypped/ Blood Type A negative/ you name it)”.

    Wow! You read all this! Give yourself a cookie, and email me to tell me what you think. And if you’re really interested go out and find all the media statistics yourself. I researched this for a college English final, so I don’t have any sources off the top of my head, but one good site is http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/issues/index.cfm that gives statistics and info.

  18. Can I just ask-whats with the emphasis on Downs Syndrome in connection with ‘retarded’?

    Political correctness has gone way over the top, in my opinion-y’all should just calm down over there.

Comments are closed.