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Who are Gypsies?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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Gypsies, known more politically correctly as the Romani, Romany or Roma, are members of an ethnic group thought to have originated from the Indian subcontinent, and who now live throughout Europe, the Middle East, Australia and the Americas. As they migrated, they faced intense persecution and discrimination, which peaked during the Holocaust, and which continues today. They are often stereotyped as dishonest individuals who work mainly as fortune tellers, but they have an distinct culture that is often described as being quite colorful, with notable contributions to music. Although many now live in permanent homes, they are traditionally nomadic.

Ancestry and Migration

Genetic evidence suggests that these people likely are the descendents of groups from northern India, and experts believe that they started migrating out of this region around 1,500 years ago. They were settled in the Balkans, or southeastern Europe, by the early 12th century, and by the 1500s, they had reached the western side of the continent. One theory about why they left is that the Ghaznavids, a Muslim army, invaded, either bringing them out of India as slaves or forcing them to abandon their homes in exile. Various legends propose alternate and somewhat fantastic ideas about their roots, such as that they are descendents of the lost city of Atlantis.

Origin of "Gypsy"

Compared to the people of Europe and other nearby regions, Romani had fairly dark skin, so those who encountered them often mistakenly thought that they had come from Egypt. They called them "gypcian," a shortened form of the Middle English "Egypcien," as a result, and eventually this became the modern word "gypsy." Today, people apply the label very generally to many nomadic groups, distinguishing when they mean Romani by capitalizing it. The term has come to have many derogatory connotations, however, so even though some Romani accept it simply due to its widespread use, most do not self-identify with it and consider it to be offensive.


Anthropologists and sociologists usually say that the traditional Romani culture is extremely rich, featuring a strong sense of togetherness. Men usually lead families and communities, but women still have respect and are expected to contribute actively to the support of the family through work or homemaking. It is not unusual for families to be large, because adults see children as both lucky and an economic or labor asset. Marriages often are arranged and occur when children are still teenagers, with many fathers still requiring dowries for their daughters.

Most of the time, the Romani form large clans or bands called kumpanias. These can have as many as several hundred families, and the people usually elect a chieftan, or voivode, to serve as a lifetime leader. A council of elders gives advice and practical help to the voivode, who also looks to a respected, older woman, or phuri dai, for insights and recommendations about the women and kids in the group.

The fact that these individuals were and are still a migratory people meant that they usually did not follow religions that could be considered organized by today's standards. Despite this, contemporary members of the group are largely followers of either Hindu or Islam, with others following Christianity, particularly leaning toward Roman Catholicism. Even when they do not fall into one of these categories, they collectively still hold a strong sense of spirituality, believing firmly in the idea of cleanliness — this often is compared to the Jewish concept of people and things being kosher — and the connected nature of behavior, events and fate.


With their culture and appearance typically very different from that of the nations to which they immigrated, Romani usually experienced extreme prejudice. Various groups enslaved them as early as the 12th or 13th century, and even where they had their freedom, natives typically saw them as lesser people. Getting stable, steady jobs that would have allowed more permanent settlement was difficult, and it wasn't unusual for groups to have to move to get access to basic necessities. This discrimination likely provided plenty of fuel for the adoption of a nomadic lifestyle as standard, with many clans moving eastward into Russia to escape trouble.

The anti-Romanti sentiment reached its peak during World War II. As the German leader, Adolf Hitler, redefined what "acceptable" ethnicity was, his followers and other racists tried various methods of eradicating the group. As was common for the Jews, the Nazis often exiled them out of towns and cities, and as time went on, leaders moved to coerced or forced sterilization to try to control populations. Officers frequently executed them on sight, and thousands were sent to concentration camps. Many were the subjects for experimental medical testing or research, dying from what was done to them, while others were shot or sent to the gas chambers. Conservative estimates place the number who perished at 200,000, but according to some historians, the number might be as high as 2,000,000.

Members of Romani groups continue to suffer persecution throughout the world, and they are still stereotyped as superstitious, deceptive con artists. The close-knit nature of the family, along with their unwillingness to give up their culture and language to assimilate into the larger society, has inspired xenophobia. Anti-discrimination legislation has been helpful in some instances, but the social perception of the group as lower class or even worthless still persists in many areas.


The extreme persecution Romani faced — and still are experiencing today — made it extremely difficult for these people to have a broad range of careers. The two trades for which they are most well-known and stereotyped, often practiced together, are fortune telling and acting as a psychic. Most of the time, however, they worked as metal workers, peddlers or animal traders and amateur veterinarians.

In addition to holding these jobs, they often served as musicians. Their music has been particularly influential in genres ranging from classical to rock, with jazz, bolero and flamenco music bearing especially heavy influence. The culture has inspired musicians throughout Eastern Europe and beyond, including composers such as Franz Liszt and Johannes Brahms.

Contemporary Romani are somewhat better able to explore other options, as many now live in more permanent homes and, in certain regions, are protected to some degree by law. Even so, they struggle to get more advanced jobs in many areas, in part because discrimination results in a lack of proper education toward advanced careers. The unemployment rate is generally high.


With many Romani constantly on the move, getting any kind of accurate census record regarding their numbers is a challenge. The fact that some individuals don't consider themselves to be members of this ethnic class while outsiders improperly use the label for themselves makes the problem worse. Experts believe that there are at least 4,000,000 people in this group, with some estimates reaching 14,000,000. The large majority, 66 – 83%, live in Europe.

PublicPeople is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

By anon998681 — On Aug 02, 2017

I've been told that there were Italian Gypsies in my ancestral line. I don't doubt it because all the women on my Sicilian side were raised to be the best wives and mothers on the planet. This I do know about Gypsy culture; they are the cleanest people (both in their homes and personal hygiene), they believe strongly in family, they know a thing or two about showing respect to their elders and they are strong in their traditions. I can't say enough good about Gypsy culture because they have the same values I was raised with.

By anon938091 — On Mar 08, 2014

Not all gypsies are like what you see on T.V. There are good and bad amongst all races. Sadly, modern society likes to discriminate against the unknown and likes to stereotype gypsies as foolish, ignorant people, which is wrong. Everyone should be judged on their own individual actions.

By anon924224 — On Jan 02, 2014

Most cultures do not consider "outsiders" to be "fully human"? That's an interesting conclusion. I do see how one could assume that idea to be true based upon general in-group/out-group relations, especially if there the relationship is estrange and contentious. But I think that idea is a bit of a stretch and frankly a jump to conclusion.

Anyhow, I've been watching a little bit the Gypsy series on T.V. and my curiosity has been sparked. I'm intrigued by the different groups and their portrayal in American media and discourse. So much basic information seems to be left out (based upon my perceptions) concerning the cultural relevance of their traditions. I also found that American media tends to, in some cases, degrade the integrity of their subjects specifically in the realm of what we call "reality television".

I would personally love to hear the story from the Romani (is that the broader term?) community, instead of focusing on stereotypical images of young Gyspy women cursing like a sailor with blinged out belly-tops and daisy dukes on while running away to see their convict boyfriends. Where is the context? I get the impression that many of these shows are more telling of American media culture than a fair representation of Roma lifestyle and traditions.

Those types of images often tell a very oversimplified and vain story. I don't know an extensive amount about Travelers, their history and lifestyle, but I don't see how shows like Gypsy Sisters challenge existing stereotypes of various Gypsy peoples (more specifically in the United States).

I am wondering if any Romas take issue or are concerned with the images that are thrust into the American public and broader audiences, or if any of these shows are in fact a positive platform for informing the public about who they are and why they are.

Much love and respect.

By anon359591 — On Dec 18, 2013

You know, up until about four years ago, we would have been as PC as you could get. Until a group of criminal gypsies married into the Russian family next door and completely changed our POV.

They stole my husband's bike from where he'd parked it, right beside the back of our house (our yard, by the way, has a six-foot fence around it; they used our pool ladder we'd stored beside the house).

They are, in a word, trash. Absolute trash. There are fights all summer (when it's nice outside they like to take it out front, like theater). A big, obese slob (400 pounds-plus) has referred to his 14 year old daughter and stepdaughter as obscene names and said, out in the front yard, that the stepdaughter's "job" was to, well, perform a sex act on him. Yes. Seriously. And in front of the mom, who of course, didn't say a word. And that's not even scratching the surface.

They have poisoned our dogs (non barking, three gentle rescues) to almost death (no proof because they didn't die. No autopsy.)

They have heckled and threatened our two kids. They have put garbage (giant flat screen TV) on our parking strip and threatened to kill us if we touched it (we were moving it to mow the lawn, and because it was their garbage!). Mommy is a totally classic meth head, as is her twin sister.

They fill the street with crappy cars that they "fix" in the driveway to sell to hapless Craigslist victims.

The numerous, numerous children (who don't go to school) throw rocks over the fence at our dogs, and scream obscenities at their siblings, right down to the five year old brother screaming at his 14 year old sister during some typical sibling spat in the back yard.)

We have lived in our home for over 10 years, and built up a pretty strong community amongst our neighbors. We will be selling the house and moving this coming spring, due to the gypsies wallowing next door.

So, yeah. Our opinion has shifted, to say the least. Not in a good way.

By anon358439 — On Dec 10, 2013

Gypsies believed that god gave everyone property except for the gypsies, so that's why they don't feel like they're stealing from others.

By anon341471 — On Jul 12, 2013

What an irony. The Swedish PC politicians always rant about that the Romanian gypsies are honest people but no, the chairman for the Romanian organization in Sweden is sentenced for grand theft and drug trafficking. We have huge problems with these people all over Sweden.

By anon338273 — On Jun 12, 2013

As a proud romanichal, I am glad to share with others the rich history of our people, as there are several distinct groups of Roma. We cannot all be painted with the same brush or stereotyped as one group. My people (romanichal) have lived in America for several hundred years after immigrating from Europe to avoid persecution and harassment.

I have had the honor of traveling overseas and the present persecution of our people exists in one form or another today as much as it did two centuries ago. Because of fear (or I like to think, great pride), we live in silence, afraid or ashamed to admit who we are, let alone demand rights as a legitimate minority.

It is my hope that before we are judged by stereotypes (TV shows, etc.) that the public should read and study on the facts of our culture and weigh both sides of our history before making judgments in ignorance.

I've raised my kids to be proud of our bloodlines and history. Maybe one day we can be more open without facing discrimination because of the actions of just a few. We are many thousands strong and contribute more to this country than many other minorities, yet we are labeled as less than desirable. Hopefully this will change. Curtis J. -- Louisiana

By anon337628 — On Jun 07, 2013

I grew up knowing that I was a Bohemian. My mother would tell me that if she had known my father was Bohemian she would have never spoken to him. When I asked what it meant that he was Bohemian, she told me it meant he was a dirty gypsy. My grandmother came to American from what used to be Czechoslovakia. I am proud of who I am regardless of where I came from.

I am curious however, if my mother was even right in calling me a gypsy? Is it possible my grandmother was a gypsy? My grandfather's family served in World War II on the German side. After the war was over, he escaped to America to avoid charges of wartime crimes.

By anon290926 — On Sep 11, 2012

I asked a family member what she knew about gypsies, and she said don't spread rumors of people you know nothing about, that people are people. I said all I know is what I saw on TV as a kid from old werewolf movies. You know the old black and white ones. The gypsies always lived outside of town in tents wearing old dusty clothes, smoking stogies around a campfire. Actually, I thought they were Jewish. Oh my god.

By anon279984 — On Jul 15, 2012

I had a neighbor who is a gypsy and an avid golfer. Until he told me about his ethnicity, I thought he was otherwise.

He is kind and gentle. He was a mediocre golfer but not from lack of trying. He recently retired and disappeared.

By ChanDawn — On Jan 11, 2012

Many American Indians have been treated as (Gypsies) thieves, murderers rapists and savages. In some places they still are; they live in shacks without floors and they still caravan from one region to the next. They trade handmade crafts and jewelry sometimes fairly and sometimes not.

Some Native Americans live in high rises and hold corporate jobs. Some revisit their heritage and some don't. Who is anyone to say that another's cultures and traditions are right and proper if it is right and proper to them? Let he who is without sin cast the first stone!

I love Gypsies/Romas, Japanese, Jews, Germans, Brits, Indians, Native Americans and all American Mutts.

By anon194051 — On Jul 06, 2011

i'd die to be a gypsy.

By anon138028 — On Dec 30, 2010

I plead a case on behalf of the Romani people. I have read an author who gave account of Gypsy experiences of his childhood. There was a troupe (or band?) of Gypsies who would come to his Appalachian mountain village each year. There was no theft going on. The Gypsies were very shrewd negotiators. Perhaps people, whose bargaining skills were lacking, would think themselves robbed. All the people, in the area, looked forward to the Gypsies' annual encampment. Each year everyone wanted to have the Gypsies' camp on their property, because they got first chance to bargain for horses and whatever else, and also received the best price for whatever they got.

People would come from miles around to buy the Gypsy potions for healing, to trade for horses and stock, buy hand crafted goods, or to have their fortune told. The author said that fewer and fewer Gypsies came, then finally they did not return. His memories of Gypsies seemed to be cherished ones.

It seems to me that any people from differing areas, would behave differently. It makes sense that if Gypsies are more oppressed and persecuted in the Balkans, they might behave in a way that is abhorrent to others. I don't excuse this behavior. I do understand, however, that poverty, oppression and persecution do terrible things to people. I also understand that not all people, of the same background, are alike. It would be interesting to know how the rest of the Balkan population, (of similar socioeconomic status) behaves.

I have heard many stories of people, of all ethnic backgrounds, behaving pretty badly in bad times (even in good times). I have also read (on the University of Texas at Austin website, a Romanian Hancock PhD) that the Romani are "...at the bottom of every socioeconomic indicator...", so perhaps there is no one else in the Balkans to compare them to.

By anon135228 — On Dec 17, 2010

There are good people and bad people in the world and that is in no way shape of form related to your ethnic descent. However, in my experience, I have seen some fairly extreme behavior from Romas that make it difficult for me to not to feel anger toward the culture.

It may be a good thing to look for the good in people, but it's foolish to ignore the bad. When you see a very large portion of people use their children to beg for money and then beat the child when he/she returns to their parents, it sets in a negative impression. I've traveled frequently throughout the Balkans and see the same throughout.

By anon135057 — On Dec 17, 2010

gypsies should be treated with respect and should be discriminated against as if they are not human.

By anon133838 — On Dec 12, 2010

Damn, I wish I were Gypsy. I'm a romantic, and yes, I romanticize the Roma people. There are worse things in this world than seeing only the good in people. What is it that fascinates me? Their passion. Especially their passion for music.

I have heard, from a friend, who has met gypsies, that the men were incredibly handsome. I have read and heard that in spite of repeated rumors, that things and children would disappear when gypsies were around, nothing of the sort ever happened.

Whenever one group of people persecutes another group, it is never because the other group is somehow unequal. It is always because of fear. Perhaps Gypsies are persecuted, because a people willing to do what ever it takes to remain true to themselves are a frightening challenge to the rest of us?

By anon133668 — On Dec 11, 2010

I've met a couple of gypsies here in Houston, despite the benefit of the doubt one was a guy and he was a crackhead very handsome guy but bad into drugs the other was my last neighbor they were a mess! Literally! They were OK at times but the family was a complete mess.

By anon101723 — On Aug 04, 2010

My great-grandfather had a gypsy wife, while my grandfather and father had non gypsy wives. What does that make me now?

Some people who see me for the first time think I am a gypsy cause of my skin color, even now.

When i was 17, i never thought about stuff like this, but now it kind of bothers me.

I don't want this to offend someone, but in this country surrounded with these people, it's really hard for me. I live in a country in the Balkans.

By anon99950 — On Jul 28, 2010

I am not Roma but I would like to say that Romani are people too and it's sickening that they are treated like they are--especially in Balkan region. I do believe that not all people are the same, but from my experience with few Romas, they can be deceptive-- just like anyone else -- which does not mean that all Romas are deceptive for personal benefit.

Also, it is mindblowing that some Romas are not grabbing the opportunities of education and are choosing to be beggars or whatever else that may lead to negative stereotypes.

By anon92773 — On Jun 30, 2010

gypsy people should be treated like individuals. i think, because i am a gypsy, people think I'm a tramp and they don't treat me the same. Rubbish to the people who are like that. They need to learn some respect.

By anon79534 — On Apr 23, 2010

I'm 48 and I've just learned I'm a gypsy. i don't know much about them, and I'm trying to learn. Where can i find gypsy people?

By anon73659 — On Mar 28, 2010

"Romas do not consider it in any way immoral to take from or cheat non-Roma peoples." I do.

By anon49379 — On Oct 20, 2009

Proud to be a gypsy.

By anon43376 — On Aug 28, 2009

"Most cultures do not consider outsiders to be fully 'human'..."

What?!?! Absolute nonsense.

By anon38349 — On Jul 25, 2009

i am gypsy and they aren't like you explained. some are and some aren't

By anon24425 — On Jan 12, 2009

My family come from a Romani background and it annoys me how Romani people (Gypsies) are stereotyped as thieves.

By anon22883 — On Dec 12, 2008

Romas do not consider it in any way immoral to take from or cheat non-Roma peoples. Certainly, it can be construed as a neutral factoid - most cultures do not consider outsiders to be fully "human."

Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a PublicPeople editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of...
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