Question today for the readers: Is the verb gyp -- meaning to cheat, defraud or swindle -- offensive?
Read on and share your thoughts in the comments.
I was out with some friends last night, and one of them said something about getting gypped. Another said he shouldn't say that because it is an ethnic slur. He said "Oh yeah, I forgot" and that was that.
But I kept thinking about it. I'd also forgotten that there was a question of gyp's offensiveness. I was talking to my wife about it on the ride home, and I couldn't decide if it was a word worth fighting over, or even if it really was offensive.
I went through five or six dictionaries this morning, and all of them say that gyp is "probably" or "perhaps" short for Gypsy, and a few date it as a late 19th century Americanism. (An older use of gyp, dating to the mid 18th century in England, was for a college servant.) Gypsies are an ethnic group, not just a lifestyle as some think. (UPDATE: As Cherie B points out in the comments, Gypsies refer to themselves as the Romany, something I knew but forgot. I've changed later references in this post to reflect that.)
But is gyp offensive because of its probable origin? It's a tough question, especially because there is another word that has the same meaning that is unquestionably offensive: jew. As in "he got jewed" or "to jew someone down." When I as in college, there was once a pretty intense confrontation over this when someone used jew this way during a discussion in one of my classes.
Interestingly, the Webster's New World College Dictionary gives the definition of jew as a verb as: "to swindle; cheat; gyp." It then notes that using jew as a verb this way "is a vulgar and offensive usage, even when the speaker or writer is not consciously expressing an antisemitic attitude." All of the standard dictionaries that have an entry on jew as a verb have similar notes that say it is offensive; none of them say anything about gyp.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage also warns against using jew as a verb, but does have an entry on gyp:
For some time there has been a tendency to call attention to oneself or one's group by taking public umbrage at some term or another as an ethnic slur. The verb gyp, reports Safire in 1986, is one of those words. Gyp, which means "to cheat or swindle," is probably derived from a noun that is probably short for Gypsy. This is a fairly remote derivation to take offense at, and we have no evidence that gyp is ever used in an ethnically derogatory way. But since a few have taken offense, it is likely that others will follow. You should at least be aware that the issue has been raised and that sensitivities are now keener in this area than perhaps they were formerly. The verb, incidentally, is an Americanism of late 19th century origin.
So MWDEU doesn't like political correctness. Leaving that argument aside, the tone of the entry is fairly condescending. You could replace the word gyp with the word jew in it and make mostly the same argument (it's derived from a noun that is short for Jewish person), with one key exception. There is plenty of evidence that jew is used in an ethnically derogatory way. I don't think people in the U.S. ever think of Romany when they say gyp.
But does that make it OK? Is gyp not thought of as offensive because there just aren't many Romany in America, or if there are, because they are mostly invisible? (Remember, this is an Americanism.) After writing all of this, I think I'd lean toward being careful about using gyp or not using it at all. It's a word that equates a group of people with stealing as much as jew does. I don't think I'd like it if it "to get irished" meant to get drunk. And I think it's hard to make the argument against jew as a verb on the one hand and for gyp as a verb on the other.
What do you think?