Mind your language

When did ‘pikey’ become offensive?

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

12 February 2022

9:00 AM

A policeman sent a colleague who was house-sitting for him a WhatsApp message: ‘Keep the pikeys out.’ He was sacked and last month failed in his appeal. A reader wrote to me saying he came across the word pikeys in the 1970s in Oxfordshire and ‘understood it to mean dishonest low-life characters, though not necessarily of a specific group like gypsy or other travellers’. He also remembered as a teenager in Cheshire coming across a hayfork being called a pikel, and wonders if the terms are related. They are, but not straightforwardly.

Pikey dates from the second third of the 19th century as pikey-man, meaning a traveller who has come into the locality on the pike or turnpike road. Turnpike roads were toll roads punctuated by turnpikes, a kind of turnstile with a vertical axle and horizontal spokes, or a horizontal bar armed with spikes. Pikel, ‘hayfork’ (chiefly in the West Midlands and north), is a diminutive of pike in one of its meanings.


An ethnic group once often nomadic call themselves Roma. Most British people call them gypsies, a curtailed form of Gyptians or Egyptians, though the people came from south Asia and speak a north Indian language, Romani. That’s why George Borrow called them Romany. I don’t see that his spelling is at all offensive. But there is no doubt that pikey, if directed to a gypsy or Rom, is offensive. Sensitivities are tender here. Travelling people in Ireland dislike being called tinkers.

The Roma called non-Romani gadjo (from the Sanskrit ‘house-dwelling’), sometimes in the form gorgio. They used a derogatory term, didicoi, for a Romani person with only one Romani parent. Non-Romani have used didicoi for what they thought of as half-gypsies.

The curious thing is that the name Rom ‘man’ (plural Roma) is thought to come from the ancient Sanskrit omba (the d with a dot under it standing for a retroflex consonant a little like an r), meaning ‘lower-caste person working as a wandering musician’. If etymology were the same as meaning, Gypsy, a mere geographical misunderstanding, seems a less troublesome label than Roma, which implied a lower caste, a concept that the British do not hold.

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