Roma vs. Gypsy: NYT Copy Fail



3rdWorldImagineer is back today with another instalment of ‘why language matters’. For the record, I am not a PC fascist, but I do think it’s critical to examine how we talk about certain subjects, particularly ones gaining steam in the media. Hence, my semi-annual beef with the AP Stylebook.

For the uninitiated, the AP Stylebook is the vanguard of American newswriting style. Most publications write their own additions, but few deviate markedly from the BOOK.  Hence, the press dictates everything from what to capitalize to which country/city/state name is preferred (as in Mumbai/Bombay, Burma/Myanmar) and is NOTORIOUSLY adverse to change. In the words of TJK, one of the book’s overlords, “we don’t want to have to change it back.” 

The stylebook’s aim is a noble one: to take the world’s most widely spoken and written language–the lingua franca for news–and standardize it. Doing so requires a certain degree of rigidity, but sometimes conservative (and condecending) attitudes about the intelligence and adaptibility of readers block changes that are long overdue. Case in Point: Roma vs. Gypsy

The Roma, once called Gypsies (gitano or tzigan in most Euro languages),  are Europe’s largest ethnic minority. I had written a whole graph about it, but suffice it to say, their various plights in the post-Soviet era make them probably the unluckiest ethnic minority in the world right now (trust me, nobody knows how to brutalize like the Euros). To quote the Guardian:

The evictions underline the plight of Europe’s 8 million Roma as the continent’s most downtrodden minority. Subject to entrenched harassment, discrimination, and ghettoisation, the Roma are liberty’s losers in the transformation wrought by recent free elections and free markets

Given all that, you’d be forgiven for asking what’s  in a name. 

Unfortunately, there’s a lot. 

Most Americans think these words are interchangeable. They’re not. Saying Gypsy instead of Roma is like saying Negro instead of black. (black is currently AP style, for reasons that, refreshingly, make sense). 

What makes this all worse is that basically the only time the press (any press) write about Roma is when they’re being murdered or their unemployment rates have gone up or 68% of Italians would like them forcibly removed from the country. That is, the word Gypsy, besides being derogetory and outmoded, is also UNIVERSALLY associated with bad news. 


Yes, if you turned and said ‘Roma’ to your neighbor they’d probably wrinkle their nose, but that in itself is a Catch 22–you can’t use Roma because nobody knows Roma, and nobody knows Roma because you never use it. Readers might scratch their heads at first, but the AP itself perfected the subtle transition between accepted terminologies.  Even today, two years after the style changed and only 14 since the city was officially renamed, editors still write the phrase: Mumbai, formerly called Bombay–and nobody’s the worse for it.  

AP, one might argue, is getting there. But with the uptick in ethnic violence (and particularly anti-Roma violence) across Europe in tandem with the market crash, it could not be more imparative to change the style  now.

Observe how deftly the Guardian does it. 

Racism and discrimination across the EU is far more widespread than previously thought, with Europe’s estimated 12 million Roma, or Gypsy, population, being a special target, an EU agency warns.

When even RUSSIA TODAY are beating you, you know you’re behind. 



1 Comment

Filed under 3rd World Imagineering, Bibliomania, Economy, India, MUMBAI, The Liberal Media, United Nations

One response to “Roma vs. Gypsy: NYT Copy Fail

  1. Pingback: UPDATE: Roma and the Copy Fail « 3rdworldimagineer’s Weblog

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