I’ve been having an exchange elsewhere about the word gyp ‘cheat, swindle,’ and I am (with some trepidation) bringing it here in the hopes of having a productive discussion and perhaps learning a few things. I will lay out the facts as I know them and my attitude toward the word based on those facts; as always, I welcome correction from those who know more than I. What I do not welcome is moral posturing, so please keep it to a minimum. I think we can make the good-faith assumption that both I, your jovial host, and the commenters who have the good taste to frequent this establishment deplore bigotry in general and the persecution of Gypsies/Romá in particular. It’s fine to suggest that the word is offensive for one reason or another, but please do not suggest that those who use it are therefore bigots and should feel bad. Reasonable people can have different understandings of the offensiveness of a given term. It is possible I may change my understanding based on what is said in this thread, but it will not be because of unsupported assertions, however vigorously stated. With that out of the way, here are the facts as I understand them.
1) Gypsies/Romá have been treated terribly ever since they first appeared in Europe in the fourteenth century. They were enslaved, expelled, branded, mutilated; their children were taken away; the Nazis tried to exterminate them (to quote the Wikipedia article, “Ian Hancock has estimated that almost the entire Romani population was killed in Croatia, Estonia, Lithuania, Luxembourg and the Netherlands”). Their sufferings have historically been reported less and taken less seriously than those of any other ethnic group of similar prominence; only recently has this begun changing (and one result of the change is the current disfavoring of gyp, as well as of Gypsy itself). It should go without saying that I would avoid doing anything that would cause pain to actual members of the group.
2) The word gyp is of unknown etymology. Most sources now say (with or without qualification) that it is derived from a colloquial shortening of Gypsy, and this is certainly a likely possibility, but nobody knows for sure. The OED (in a still unrevised entry) derives the verb from the noun, and says the noun is “perh[aps] short for GIPSY or for GIPPO ['A scullion, varlet,' from Old French *gipel, jupel (later jupeau), 'A short tunic worn under the hauberk'].” American Heritage says “Probably short for Gypsy,” which is a reasonable summary.
3) The word gyp is now widely considered offensive and avoided by those who try to avoid all forms of verbal offense. The exchange I mentioned at the start of this post came about because one person wrote that something seemed like “a jip,” questioned his own spelling, and was told the spelling was gyp but that it was “not the preferred nomenclature,” whereupon the first person looked it up, found it given as “American, back formation from Gypsy,” and said “Well, there goes another word from my vocabulary.” When someone said “the association with gypsies is so far removed from anyone’s real life in the US that we’re not actually doing anybody favors by getting rid of it,” the person who had talked about “preferred nomenclature” responded that similar explanations had been given for condoning the use of the words “gay” and “Jew” in pejorative ways, and therefore “I couldn’t really feel comfortable” using it. When I said that I didn’t see it as in any way like “gay” and “Jew,” he responded “even though I don’t know anybody who identifies as a Gypsy or anyone with Roma ancestry (that I’m aware of), now that I know the derivation of the word it still feels like about the same thing to me. It’s still maligning a group of people based on a stereotype of their culture/genetics, whether or not they’re around to hear it.”
And there’s the rub: is it maligning a group of people? Even if it is derived from Gypsy (which is only a hypothesis), if the people who use it make no connection with the ethnic group and if members of the ethnic group are not offended or hurt by it, how can it possibly be considered harmful or offensive? I deplore the use of “gay” as a general term of disparagement (“That’s so gay”) and of phrases like “jew down” (for ‘bargain down a price,’ if anyone is unfamiliar with the usage), but that is because I know gay people who are personally hurt by the first and Jews who are hurt by the second, and I don’t like people being unnecessarily hurt. But I do not know anyone who is personally hurt (as opposed to theoretically offended on behalf of theoretical others) by the use of gyp, and (as I put it in the original discussion, when persecution was brought up) “None of the people who persecute the Roma use the word, and none of the people who use the word persecute Roma.” I dislike theoretical offense, something that is more and more common these days; I realize that history does not provide equilibrium but rather swings from one extreme to the other, and an era of complacent insensitivity (such as that preceding World War II, when even the most vile ethnic epithets were tossed around casually by otherwise decent people) was bound to be followed by one of exaggerated sensitivity, when people eagerly took offense on behalf of any possible victims, but I still don’t like being told that some word is out of bounds not because any actual person is hurt by it but because someone has decided it might be hurtful to someone else.
A couple of points. Although I do not personally know any Gypsies/Roma, I had a friend in New York who was married to one and spoke Romanes herself (a rare accomplishment for a gadjo); she found the use of “Roma” by outsiders bizarre, and always spoke of “Gypsies” and said those she knew did the same in English. While we’re on the subject, it amuses me that few of those sensitive outsiders who insist on the “authentic” term “Roma” have any idea of either its pronunciation (the stress should be on the last syllable, which is why I often write it Romá) or its status as a plural (the singular is Rom, or Rrom if you’re really being authentic). And in the authentic ethnonym sweepstakes, I probably know more minimal pairs than any but a few specialists, thanks to my interest in languages and ethnicity; if you want to throw down, I’ll see your Gypsy/Roma and raise you a Galla/Oromo, and I’ll trump your Lapp/Saami with an Ostyak/Khanty. My point being that we are sinners all, in these matters, and it ill behooves anyone who isn’t positive that they know every proper ethnonym in existence (and thus is almost certainly referring to some group or other “wrongly”) to sneer at those who use a term they happen to know is disfavored.
So. 1) (If you are yourself a Gypsy/Rom) are you personally hurt by this term, or (in the more likely event you are not) do you know someone who is? 2) If you use the word gyp, do you think of it as a disparaging ethnic term? I welcome all discussion, as long as it is carried on in a civilized fashion; any flaming or trolling will be deleted, though I trust that won’t be necessary.
Update. Based on the convincing comments of respondents below, I have decided I was wrong and gyp is genuinely offensive. I thank everyone who took part in the discussion and helped me come to that conclusion.