Truth of the Gypsies

We all know the gypsy stereotype: living in caravans, singing and dancing with scarves whose culture could be dated back Romania, and even Egypt. Gypsies have been portrayed in Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and, in recent years, a TV show, My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.

Shakespeare portrayed Cleopatra’s “gypsy lust” in the beginning of Antony and Cleopatra. Whatever that means? Shakespeare had inaccurately represented gypsies as people from Egypt and Rome. Gypsy has no connection with Rome, romance, or Romania. Gypsies origins come from Romany.

Gypsy and Egyptian used to be interchangeable. So, how did this happen? In 1418, a band of gypsies (accurately called Romas) arrived in Augsburg claiming to be from “Little Egypt.” This is unclear as to what they meant, but they wanted a safe place, which the Egyptian government gave and the people denied them. The Egyptian idea caught on and a myth started to circulate that Joseph, Mary and Jesus were obliged to escape the wrath of Herod by fleeing to Egypt.  But, they were denied food and shelter by the local tribe, condemning the to suffer the same fate for all eternity.

The truth is, though, the Romas are from India. The origin lies in their language, closely resembling Sanskrit and Hindi. The word Roma comes from Rom, meaning man, which derives from domba, meaning musician in Sanskrit. The word gypsy is a Middle English (c.1600) dialectical form of egypcien since that is where people thought the Romas came from.

This hasn’t stopped the myths of their origin. In Hungary they were known as Pharaoh-Nepek, or Pharaoh’s people. In Scandinavia they were thought to be from Tartay, called Tartars. In Italy it was Walachia and called Walachians. In Spain, they believed the Romas were Flemish Belgians and called them Flamenco. In France they thought to be from Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) and called Bohemians.

In 1851, a Parisian writer, Henri Murger, wrote about life in the city’s Latin Quarter. He thought the artists in this quarter and the scorn of convention they received made them social Bohemians. He called his book Scenes de la vie de boheme. The word caught on. Vanity Fair used it and Puccini turned Murger’s book into an opera, La Boheme.

That is why unconventional artists, and now a lifestyle for young women, are known as Bohemians, or gypsies.