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shameless pleading

Gypsy

Gotta dance.

Dear Word Detective: When did the term “gypsy” become associated with dancers in American musical theater? — Freda.

Thanks for a good question. I was vaguely familiar with the usage before I started to look into it, but I’ve actually learned a number of interesting things while poking around for details.

“Gypsy” is a fascinating word in its own right. In its original (and properly capitalized) sense, it refers to a nomadic people who originated in northwestern India and first appeared in Europe in the early 16th century. When Gypsies eventually made it to England, they were called “gipcyan” (later modified to “gypsy”), which was a shortening of “Egyptian,” due to the popular (but erroneous) belief that they hailed from North Africa. The “gypsies” called themselves “Roma” or “Romani,” from “rom,” the word for “man” in their language, Romany.

Today there are an estimated four million Roma in Europe and large populations in both North and South America. Historically, the Roma have been the target of discrimination, exploitation, deportation and even extermination in many countries, where they were popularly imagined to make their livelihood by theft and deceit. Popular prejudice against the Roma is often assumed to have given us the verb “to gyp,” meaning “to cheat or deceive” (as well as the noun, meaning “a thief”), but there is reason to doubt that explanation. “Gyp” in this sense didn’t appear until the late 19th century, and it appeared in the US, where the Roma were not all that common. “Gyp” in the “cheat” sense may actually come from “gippo,” a much older term for a kitchen worker (from the French “juppeau,” a kind of short tunic).

The reputation of the Roma for nomadic wandering underlies several uses of “gypsy” in colloquial English. “Gypsy cabs” in large cities are taxicabs that, while either unlicensed or licensed only to operate “on call,” roam the streets illegally picking up fares. A “gypsy truck” is one operating in an area where it has no home depot. Other businesses and occupations operating in an unlicensed and/or sporadic fashion, such as small logging operations, are also tagged with the adjective “gypsy.”

I have been, as yet, unable to pin down a debut date for “gypsy” in the sense of “a dancer or chorus member in the company of a musical play,” but, based on what I have found, I’d be willing to bet that the term dates back to at least the 1940s, and quite possibly much earlier. Oddly enough, I have yet to find a dictionary that even lists “gypsy” in this sense, which is strange, since it’s hardly obscure. In any case, the term “gypsy” in the theatrical sense comes from the fact that dancers or chorus singers work in one show during its run (on Broadway, for instance), and then move on to another, frequently performing in many dozens of shows in the course of their careers. Some “gypsies” eventually, after years of hard work, graduate to starring roles and fame; the actress, singer and dancer Chita Rivera is perhaps the most notable example of starting out as a “gypsy” and ending up a major star.

You’d think that the peripatetic nature of such a career would dictate a somewhat individualistic lifestyle, but apparently not. Gypsies stick together. A fascinating CBS Sunday Morning report from 2012 (www.cbsnews.com/video/watch/?id=7411210n) showcased the pre-show opening night Broadway ritual of the “Gypsy Robe,” in which the “gypsy” with the most show credits is honored with a robe festooned with the logos of all the shows in which previous winners have performed.

2 comments to Gypsy

  • Howard Ralph

    I was hoping the reference to gypsy as a theatrical dancer would make reference to Gypsy Rose Lee’s career. The 1940s timeframe would have been perfect… but, unfortunately not to be. According to a mini-biography appearing in the imdb site, she adopted “Gypsy” in reference to her hobby of reading tea leaves. Who knows?

  • J. Pastor

    Howard, I’m not sure why you say “not to be.”

    Seems to me the term “gypsy” in reference to a dancer might very well have been derived from/based on Gypsy Rose Lee: as you say, the timing is right.

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