‘What’s in a name?’ The Dilemmas of Re-Naming Yugoslav Gypsies into Roma

Julija Sardelić
8th of April

It was the spring of 1970 when the 18-year-old Ludvik Levačić was conscripted into the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) to perform his compulsory 18-month military service with his fellow male Yugoslav citizens. He vividly remembers his first day, when an officer wrote in his army ID booklet that he was of Slovenian nationality (nacionalnost). No one in the army recognized him as such. His fellow soldiers, Ludvik remembers, only whispered that he was a gypsy. After a year, he was called in by his superiors. They believed they had very pleasing news for Ludvik.  A congress had been organised near London by a newly founded movement whose representatives claimed that referring to its members and all the people in the world they represent as ‘gypsies’ was pejorative. The congress declared that from that day, 8th April 1971, these people should be named ‘Roma’. Since the most prominent of the movement’s leaders were members of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia (LCY), it had been decided to endorse this movement in Yugoslavia and re-name the ‘gypsies’ as ‘Roma’. Ludvik was now entitled to ‘become’ a Roma, which was the word used in his mother tongue. But when the officer wanted to change Ludvik’s nationality to Roma in his army ID, to the officer’s surprise, Ludvik objected and refused to be categorized as Roma. He demanded to be identified specifically as a Gypsy (Cigan).

The power of naming

Ludvik’s story points to a dilemma that could be best illustrated with the Shakespearian question ‘What’s in a name?’, which is also one of the preoccupations of the recently established academic field of Romani studies, which has no consensus on what the names ‘Roma’ and ‘gypsy’ mean. One of the schools in Romani studies[1], the neoconstructivists, claim that Roma are a distinct linguistic and ethnic group, while the opposing camp, the deconstructivists, who continue to use the term ‘gypsy’, argue that gypsies are merely a social group produced mainly due to the socio-economic antagonisms present in society.

These debates in Romani studies are of great practical relevance. They can affect policymaking and in turn re-shape the lives of the people by assigning or not assigning them to certain categories. However, this article focuses on how these processes have occurred in practice and what relevance they have in the everyday lives of the people who are now, due to political correctness, referred to as ‘Roma’.

What does it mean to be a gypsy?

Why did Ludvik refuse to be labelled as a Roma, but wanted to be known by the seemingly derogatory term of ‘gypsy’? The etymology of the English word ‘gypsy’ seems quite unambiguous; it is derived from the word ‘Egyptian’. Archival research by Judith Okely[2], a social anthropologist, has shown that in early capitalist England (mid 15th Century) the Middle English term ‘Egipcien’ (short version ‘gipsien’) and its later deformation ‘gypsies’ were simply signifiers for strangers. Many other European languages use ‘cigan’ or similar words  (e.g. ‘tsigane’ in French, ‘Zigeuner’ in German, ‘cigány’ in Hungarian, ‘cigan’ in Croatian, etc.), but the etymology of this term is much less clear. Some researchers trace its origin to the Byzantine Greek word ‘athinganoi’, which literally means ‘the untouchable’. Most scholars agree, however, that throughout history there has been mistreatment of people falling under this collective denominator of ‘gypsies’ or ‘cigani’. 

It is very important to be aware of the fact that the position of Roma or gypsies was not created by their (self-)isolation, but rather by the hierarchical positioning of people in different historical constellations. In the Ottoman Empire, Muslim Gypsies still had to pay the non-Muslim tax presumably because they were perceived as schismatics[3]. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under the ‘enlightened’ assimilationist policies of the Empress Maria Theresa, gypsies were to become civilized and be turned into farmers. In order to achieve this goal, many gypsy children were taken from their parents to be adopted by sedentary farmer families. Earlier, in the Holy Roman Empire, different anti-gypsy laws were introduced that forbade gypsies from staying on certain territories. If they did so, the ‘legitimate’ citizens were directly commanded by law to kill them. Cruelty towards gypsies reached its climax during World War II, where under Nazi regimes (including the Ustashi-led Nazi puppet state of Croatia) the final solution to the Zigeunerfrage was mass extermination in concentration camps like Jasenovac and Auschwitz. The so-called ‘gypsy camp’ within the Auschwitz complex was reported to have the highest mortality rate. Some estimates put the number of gypsies killed during acts of organized mass extermination between 500,000 and 2 million[4]

International Romani Movement and identity politics

In the decades that followed, an answer was sought to the question of how to prevent the atrocities witnessed in World War II in the future. The first solution was found in the shape of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). This declaration was intended for protecting the rights of individual human beings. However, in the 1960s many social movements arose which advocated what is known today as identity politics. These movements demanded the special protection of members of certain groups, who were being discriminated against on the basis of their belonging to those groups. One of the movements that was inspired by and arose as a result of this zeitgeist was the International Romani Movement.

The first big achievement of this movement was the first World Romani Congress held in April 1971 near London, where Romani delegates gathered to promote their political agenda. These delegates were supposed to represent all the gypsies, and they were certain that in contemporary society, the only way to promote their rights was to (re)present them not merely as a social or ethnic group, but as a nation. In this congress, the newly established non-territorial nation got its flag and its anthem, and the delegates also elected Slobodan Berberski from Yugoslavia as their first president. Most importantly, however, they adopted a new name for themselves: they decided that the people supposedly represented by them were to be known as Roma and referred to as such by all the states as well as by the international community[5].

The very first step in the Roma nation-building process was to refrain from using the term ‘gypsy’. This name, the delegates claimed, was not used by the people in question to refer to themselves, but was rather given to them by the majority population and was mostly used in a pejorative sense[6].  As they understood it, in the cultural representation of majority populations, the term ‘gypsy’ carried so much negative signifying ‘baggage’ that it could not be a source of positive national representation. Therefore, they decided to adopt ‘Roma’ as the name of their group, which was the word for referring to their own community in the largest number of Romani dialects throughout Europe. The newly established Romani elite believed that with this change of name they would also establish a more positive image of Roma among the gadže.[7]   

The question, however, remains whether the re-naming of the former gypsies into Roma has brought the results the delegates of the First World Romani Congress were expecting. Firstly, most Western European states, as well as the EU as a whole, did not yield to the demands of the Romani movement and continued to use the term ‘gypsy’ until recently. The term ‘Roma’ was introduced for the first time in official EU reports only in 1997[8], when the EU began to point at the position of Roma as a failure to introduce human rights and minority protection in the post-socialist states that were now in accession negotiations. However, most of the ‘old’ EU countries did not develop comprehensive tools for minority protection of ‘their gypsies’.

Being Roma the Yugoslavian Way

On the other hand, many socialist states, especially Yugoslavia, adopted the term ‘Roma’ very early on. The so-called first Romani president Slobodan Berberski was a member of the LCY and enjoyed its full support. After April 1971, many Yugoslavian newspapers (but not all) refrained from using the term ‘gypsy’ and started using the term ‘Roma’. In the census of 1971, Yugoslavian authorities used both signifiers, ‘Roma’ and ‘Gypsies’, for the same category. In the years to come, Romani identity was celebrated through the introduction of Romani radio broadcasts and newspapers in Romani language, especially in the Socialist Republics of Serbia and Macedonia. Many books were published in the Romani language.

However, all this could be seen merely as an affirmation of Romani identity, while the transformation of the position of Roma in Yugoslavia under their new name brought mixed blessings. Although manifestly supporting the Romani movement, Yugoslavian authorities were half-hearted in practice. Demands by the International Romani Union to be recognized as a nation were never fulfilled. With the status of an ethnic group being the most they could attain, Roma could not enjoy the same set of rights as constitutive nations did. Certain efforts were made, but often they went hand in hand with practices that entrenched Roma in their disadvantaged position ever more firmly. For example, there were initiatives to improve housing conditions of Roma, yet at the same time they instituted spatial segregation of Roma communities. There were also strong efforts to include Roma in the educational system, but the quality of their education was in many cases of a lower standard. Although it continues to be covered up, in socialist Slovenia many Romani children were put into schools for children with special needs supposedly due to their lack of knowledge of the majority language and anti-social behaviour.

 Today many Romani adults in Slovenia who as children were wrongly placed in a ‘special’ school find themselves in a hopeless situation. On the one hand, they are not able to find employment due to their low qualifications. On the other hand, their attendance of the ‘special’ school in the past does not allow them to pursue any further education. What is more, many Roma are usually frowned upon by local authorities and gadže. Although they are usually referred to as Roma not as gypsies, they are still stigmatised due to the persistent stereotypes that portray them as being lazy and abusers of social benefits.

A similar story was told to me by Tasa[9], who attended one of the ‘normal’ primary schools in Croatia. This ‘normal’ primary school had special conditions for Roma pupils, who were not only placed in segregated Roma classes, but also were made to use separate toilets and separate entrances. Roma could only enter the school from around the back. When one of the teachers approached Tasa and told her that she was ‘advanced enough’ to use the ‘Croatian entrance’, Tasa refused as she felt that this would be a betrayal of her ‘own’. It appears that Tasa and her Roma peers were being conditioned by Yugoslav and also post-Yugoslav institutions to lead lives that are   separate from those of their peers belonging to the respective ethnic majority. 

Celebrating cultural diversity or tackling inequality?

In today’s post-Yugoslav sphere, many young Romani intellectuals are proud of their Romani heritage. Although they encounter many obstacles due to discrimination, they fully identify with the term ‘Roma’. However, most Roma still find themselves on the margins of their societies. Whilst they sometimes refer to themselves as Roma, in other instances as gypsies, others use alternative group names such as Egyptians and Ashkali (the latter especially in Kosovo). Yet what is even more common is that they try to conceal this identity and simply say that they belong to the majority ethnic group, out of belief that this is the only way for them to avoid stigma. Many such people have never even heard of Slobodan Berberski, who was supposed to be their first president and are not familiar with their assumed representatives, who lead the International Romani Movement.

In the last decade, many eminent politicians from the post-Yugoslav states have hosted receptions for the Romani political, intellectual and cultural elite for the celebration of 8th April, International Romani Day. On the other hand, different NGOs and some of the critical media have used 8th April to bring attention to the bleak picture of the position of Roma in post-Yugoslav states. For example, due to the war in Kosovo, many of the Roma, Ashkali and Egyptians (RAE) still remain refugees or internally displaced, and hence many of them are stateless. The position of RAE communities in Kosovo led the European Roma Rights Center to publish a report where they categorized them as an abandoned minority. Furthermore, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH), if you identify as a member of the Roma minority, you cannot run for the BiH presidency since its seats are reserved for those from the constitutive nations (Croatian, Serbian and Bosniac). Although this was disputed in the famous Sejdic and Finci v. BIH case at the European Court of Human Rights, the de facto situation in BIH remains the same, meaning that the persons who name themselves as ‘Roma’ still do not have an equal right to political participation. Even in Slovenia, a member of the EU, which is in many instances portrayed as a post-Yugoslav success story, while ‘their’ cultural diversity is manifestly being celebrated, many Roma are still stateless due to the fact that they have been erased. The ‘politically correct’ name ‘Roma” and the celebration of 8th April as an affirmation of Roma identity does not seem to contribute much to the improvement of their position in the post-Yugoslav sphere.

Ludvik, who today heads one of the prominent Romani NGOs in Slovenia, still sticks to his original convictions, saying that he was born a gypsy and will die a gypsy. In his home in the Roma settlement of Kamenci, he still has a framed portrait of Tito and admires him as a politician who made his utmost efforts to make Roma a part of the Yugoslav society. Yet Ludvik is not so fond of those who renamed him ‘Roma’. He perceives them as the Romani elite, who come from privileged positions and have never experienced the same inferior opportunities and living conditions as most Roma in (post-)socialist countries did. They were claiming to represent people who never democratically elected them, and in Ludvik’s opinion, they only gave these people a new name, but never had a coherent plan for improving their position in the society as whole.

To finish, we therefore need to pose the same question as we did when we began: ‘What’s in a name?’ Shakespeare’s Juliet answers: ‘That which we call a rose/ by any other name would smell as sweet.’  Although Juliet’s answer was given in an entirely different context, it is still relevant to our debate. Even if one uses the politically correct term ‘Roma’, he/she can still express racist views. Renaming the gypsies into Roma and affirmatively celebrating cultural diversity does very little if different states, where Roma live, fail to also introduce a coherent plan for transforming the society in a way that would allow tackling the inequality that most Roma or gypsies are still facing on a daily basis.  


Acton, Thomas and Ilona Klímová. 2001. The International Romani Union: An East European Answer to West European Questions? In Between Past and Future: The Roma of Central and Eastern Europe, ed. Will Guy, 157 – 219. Hatfield: University of Herfordshire.

Crowe, David. 2007. A History of the Gypsies of Eastern Europe and Russia. New York, Basingstoke (UK): Palgrave Macmillan.

Factsheets on Roma History. Available at: http://romafacts.uni-graz.at/index.php/history/general-introduction/general-introduction.

Hancock, Ian. 1997. The Struggle for the Control of Identity. Transitions 4 (4): 34 – 44.

Klímová – Alexander, Ilona. 2005. The Romani Voice in World Politics: The United Nations and Non-State Actors.  Burlington: Ashgate.

Marushioakova Elena & Vesselin Popov. 2001 New Ethnic Identities in the Balkans: The Case of Egyptians. Facta Universitatis: Series Philosophy and Sociology 2(8): 465 – 77.

Matras, Yaron. 2004. The Role of Language in Mystifying and De-Mystifying Gypsy  Identity. In The Role of Romanies, ed. Saul, Nicholas and Susan Tebbutt, 53 – 78. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press.

Okely, Judith. 1994. Constructing Difference: Gypsies as ‘other’. Anthropological Journal on European Cultures  3(2): 55-73.

Simhandl, Katrin. 2009. Beyond Boundaries? Comparing Construction of the Political Categories ‘Gypsies’ and ‘Roma’ Before and After EU Enlargement. In Romani Politics in Contemporary Europe: Poverty, Ethnic Mobilization and the Neoliberal Order, ed. Nando Sigona and Nidhi Trehan, 72 – 94. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

[1] For more, see Matras, Yaron 2004: 53 – 78. 

[2] However, Judith Okely did not take into account an existing alternative story. Research by Bulgarian anthropologists Elena Marushiakova and Vesselin Popov has shown that many people defined as ‘gypsies’ in South East Europe share a myth of their Egyptian origin. In certain constellations this origin myth became so entrenched that one group (living mainly in Kosovo) refused to be classified as Roma, and instead started using the name ‘Egyptians’ in reference to themselves. This has now even been institutionalised by the Kosovar state.

[3] For more, see Crowe, David 2007: 195 – 209

[5] For  more, see Klímová – Alexander, Ilona  2005.

[6] One of the most prominent Romani intellectuals, Ian Hancock, claimed that by using the term ‘gypsy’, gadže (non-Roma) controlled the creation of their identity. By introducing a name of their own, they created, according to Hancock, also a means of controlling their own identity.

[7] Gadže is one of the most common Romani terms for non-Roma people, or more precisely for outsiders.

[8] For more, see Simhandl 2009: 72 – 94.

[9] In accordance with her wish to protect her personal identity, I used Tasa’s nickname instead of her full name.