Romani gypsies are often described as “Romanians” in the mainstream media today, although they are in fact widespread through Europe and Asia and do not originate in Romania. They actually came originally from India and are descended from nomadic groups of low caste Hindus who headed West in the Middle Ages. Romani people converted to Islam, Orthodox Christianity or Roman Catholicism depending on where they settled. They have been in Britain for over 500 years but were expelled from England in 1530.
Despite this the Romani have endured in Britain and left a linguistic legacy. Due to their Indian origins, The Romani languages are classified as Indo-Aryan although they are also strongly influenced by Balkan languages. Romani is the only New-Indo-Aryan language spoken exclusively outside of the Indian subcontinent. The Romani words that have entered into English are associated with crime and trade, due to the history of the Romani gypsies of England. Romani language in England was also influenced by a secret language called thieves’ cant or rogues’ cant which was used by thieves and other criminals in Britain in the 16th century. Close contact between Romani people and Cockneys (working class white people of East London) has resulted in linguistic exchange with many Romani words that have entered into Cockney dialect and vice versa.
“…The Romany spoken by English Gypsies today is best described as an English dialect that contains a certain amount of Romany, slang and old cant…” – Manfri Frederick Wood from In the Life of a Romany Gypsy
Romani words in English
Chav – from a Romani word for “child” used as a term of endearment. The modern English usage describes a white working class youth dressed in sports clothes.
Cosh – a bludgeoning weapon such as a truncheon, from the Romani word cosht “stick”.
Chin – in Romani “to cut” may have influenced the Cockney expression meaning “to punch in the face”.
Cushy/ Kushti – “easy, good” from the Romani word kusht or kushti.
Drag – to wear clothing of the opposite gender, possibly from indraka “dress”.
Pal – “friend” from the Romani word phral “brother”.
Pikie – in Romani this describes a gypsy who has been expelled from the tribe. In English it is a pejorative which can be used either to describe a gypsy or, like chav, any working class white person.
Moosh – colloquial English (mostly in Kent) meaning “a man” – used informally to address others eg. “Hello moosh”.
Shiv/chiv – an improvised stabbing weapon. From chivomengro “knife”
In the 1950s, British criminal Billy Hill described his use of the shiv:
“I was always careful to draw my knife down on the face, never across or upwards. Always down. So that if the knife slips you don’t cut an artery. After all, chivving is chivving, but cutting an artery is usually murder. Only mugs do murder.”
Wonga – “Money” from the Romani Vonga meaning “money”.