Weeks ago, I walked through the vodka aisle on a trip to Total Wine. With the power of Eastern Europe running through my veins, I was on the hunt for some Romanian spirits. But as I walked through the store, I saw something that made me pause: Gypsy Vodka. I rolled my eyes.
“Gypsy” is the derogatory name for Roma, a term given to my people by Europeans in the 14th century, falsely believing that the nomads, who were from Punjab, India, were from Egypt.
Gypsy Vodka is made by High Five Spirits, a company launched in 2015 by Michael and Adam Kazanowski, 20something twin brothers from Birmingham. The company has expanded, recently announcing a massive redevelopment of the 23-acre former Bay Harbor Equestrian Center in Petoskey into a 42,000-square-foot distillery and wedding venue called Gypsy Farms. The ambitious plans for the site call for multiple bars, indoor golf and duckpin bowling, glamping areas, and a music venue. According to a press release, the project is set to open in June.
When we asked why the distillery chose a name recognized as a slur, Michael Kazanowski sent the following statement:
I would get back to them saying we look at the name as something to be proud about. We look at the word as a way of art, love, and adventure, it honors their culture and history. We got the name while working music festivals seeing an abundance of love from everyone. We are of Polish descent whose ancestors were displaced during the holocaust and were in fact Gypsies. There is enough hate in the world that sometimes we like to look at the good in things and not the bad. Gypsy culture has deep roots and we fully respect and honor that. We have had the pleasure of having many people of Romani decent who have visited our tasting room, and they have expressed pride and have bought bottles to give to their relatives. Also, we have done many events with metro times in the past and have not had a single complaint we even won their event cocktail confidential.
[Editor’s note: Metro Times does not have an event called “Cocktail Confidential.”]
Like other groups, some Roma choose to continue to use a term considered to be pejorative, but scholars and activists have called on people to move away from it and learn to use the proper names.
Dalen Butler, a doctoral candidate in anthropology and history concentrating on Romani culture and history at the University of Michigan, explains that Roma congregated in the Balkans and throughout Europe, including a part of what is now Greece that was once called “Little Egypt.”
He says the slur has negative connotations that go back to the 1500s, when anti-Roma laws were introduced that enforce racism, xenophobia, and cruelty. While Roma endured slavery in Romania for more than 500 years, the laws ensured the group would continue to be outliers, and Eastern Europe viewed Roma as sub-humans and barbarians.
Butler explains further that the term “gypsy” has dark connotations associated with it. “Then you get this gross, what I would call gross, connection to enslavement, embodiment of darkness, xenophobia, cruelty, all these other things that we would associate with the worst parts about humanity,” he says. “It becomes attached to this word in the east more, so then you have this European-wide association with being backwoods, primitive, unruly.”
Over the centuries, Roma were subjected to orientalism and treated as both the dregs of society, yet also romanticized as “Bohemian” due to their nomadic lifestyle, dismissing the fact that the lifestyle was forced on them due to anti-Romani laws.
In pop culture like Disney’s 1996 feature film The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the animated retelling of Victor Hugo’s epic novel, one of the main characters, Esmerelda, is depicted as a highly sexualized femme fatale. In one scene she is shown dancing, wearing a red low-cut dress, and the local judge attempts to have her punished for refusing his romantic advances while using the phrase “gypsy vermin,” and insinuates he must purge them from Paris. For a child’s film, it’s a more extreme representation of prejudice that in its attempt to explain to the audience how harmful that hatred is, it continues to perpetuate stereotypes.
In recent years, the use of the word has come under renewed scrutiny. In 2020, Vogue published a story about “the fight to strike ‘Gypsy’ from the fashion lexicon,” noting that designer label Gypsy Sport was considering changing its name. (It still hasn’t happened yet.) Last year, The New York Times reported that the Entomological Society of America would no longer use the terms “gypsy moths” and “gypsy ants,” deeming the terms to be “inappropriate or offensive.” Earlier this month, the ESA announced that the gypsy moth will now be known as the spongy moth, an outcome of its “Better Common Names Project” to rename species names that include derogatory terms or inappropriate geographic references.
“When an invasive species carries the name of a nation or culture, it’s easy to unintentionally associate that culture with the pest’s harmful effects,” Joanne Foreman, invasive species communications coordinator with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, said in a statement. “We anticipate additional common name changes for other invasive species to reduce these negative connotations.’”
As science recognizes that a name can be changed, social media has become a hub for discussion, with the Roma community taking to apps like TikTok to create informative videos about the term. In addition, the community on the internet is teaching about the culture and advocating for destigmatizing the minority group.
The mistreatment of the Roma continues today. In the immediate present, amid the conflict between Ukraine and Russia, Romani refugees are living in poor conditions and are expressing concern for how they will be treated in other European countries. As they try to survive they are facing segregation and prejudice, making their situation even worse, as they fear for their lives due to the treatment of Roma throughout Europe.
Butler says with an ever-changing language, there is no reason we should continue to use a word that “is literally born out of 14th-century stuff.”
He adds, “why the heck are we still using this? We aren’t using old English, so [why] are we still using this word?”