Community Development through Trade
Tsigane – Zigeuner – Zingari - Chingene and Romanian Tzigan all derived from the same Greek word “Athinganoi” by which the Byzantines used to identify the first wave of strangely behaving, Roma nomads wandering into Europe. The name stuck...
“Those who lead around bears are called bear keepers…. Others, who are called Athinganoi, would have snakes wound around them, and they would tell one person that he was born under an evil star, and the other under a lucky star; and they would also prophesy about forthcoming good and ill fortunes.” Theodore Balsamon: 12th century
The Roma travelers weren’t the first Athinganoi; the original were a heretical sect whipped out 300 years before the Roma arrival. They were a secretive lot forbidding the infectious touch of other human beings. Food offered them would only be accepted if left on the ground. They were mysterious; they became known for possessing supernatural powers – and so when the Roma came wondering in with no past and an uncanny ability to see the future or wade off curses, they were immediately associated to this extinct group of sorcerers.
From that moment on the wandering Roma would be marked “Athinganoi” or any of the dozen linguistic derivations. While the exonym changed from place to place, Roma steadily referred to themselves and their people as Rom which in their language means “man” yet within the Roma’s strictly patriarchal society, it also referred to their people. (They used a single noun “gajo” (masc.) or “gaji” (fem), for people of all other races). “Rom” was virtually the same term except for a slightly varying pronunciation that is used by the “Dom” peoples of Middle East and Caucuses from which the Roma descend, and who’s name had subsequently passed from the nomadic Domba scattered across India. The name “Domba” comes from the Sanskrit meaning “a man of low caste, living by singing and music”
“Athinganoi” became “Chingene” in Turkish speaking regions, Tsigane in Bulgaria, Cigany in Hungarian lands, into Western Europe where formed the German Zingeuner and Italian Zingari. Some cultures chose a presumed Egyptian origin to identifying the mystical, dark skinned strangers like Gitanos in Spain and the popular “Gypsy” across the English Channel. In some parts of Turkey they are known as “Kipti” in reference to the Coptic Christians, another means of identifying their assumed Egyptian origin. The Dutch called them Heyden (heathens) and the Fins refer to them as Mustalaiset (blacks). In France they are sometimes known as “Bohemiens” because of the route by which they had arrived though that term would lead to identifying an artistic lifestyle embodying the Gypsy-esc freedom of expression.
While the Roma of Western Europe roamed from place to place in search of an income or as refugees, those having wondered into the Romanian territories were systematically rounded up and put in chains. Since the first documentation mentioning Roma in Romanian territories (1385) the term “tzigan” has had less of an ethnical association than of a slave or subhuman animal that like livestock could be freely bought, sold and slaughtered.
To this day “tzigan” stands halfway between an ethnicity and ethnic slur.
Slave, anti-social behavior, and an ethnicity stands as the base definition of “tzigan” and which bears a striking resemblance to “nigger”, a term no longer even publically spoken beyond the “n” word abbreviation. Nevertheless, Romanian parliament recently sought to change the official name of “Roma” back to the archaic and Romany-offensive “tzigan”. The senate argued that the similar sounding “Roma” and “Romanian” caused foreign confusions between the two. In other words, people were associating Gypsies with Romanians and vice versa; one of the two had to go. Interestingly enough the arguments conveniently left out the fact that the “Romanian” identity hadn’t even come into popular use until mid-19th century - 700 long years after the self-identifying “Roma” appeared, and which raises the question - “who stole from who?”