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Gotta dance.

Dear Word Detective: When did the term “gypsy” become associated with dancers in American musical theater? — Freda.

Thanks for a good question. I was vaguely familiar with the usage before I started to look into it, but I’ve actually learned a number of interesting things while poking around for details.

“Gypsy” is a fascinating word in its own right. In its original (and properly capitalized) sense, it refers to a nomadic people who originated in northwestern India and first appeared in Europe in the early 16th century. When Gypsies eventually made it to England, they were called “gipcyan” (later modified to “gypsy”), which was a shortening of “Egyptian,” due to the popular (but erroneous) belief that they hailed from North Africa. The “gypsies” called themselves “Roma” or “Romani,” from “rom,” the word for “man” in their language, Romany.

Today there are an estimated four million Roma in Europe and large populations in both North and South America. Historically, the Roma have been the target of discrimination, exploitation, deportation and even extermination in many countries, where they were popularly imagined to make their livelihood by theft and deceit. Popular prejudice against the Roma is often assumed to have given us the verb “to gyp,” meaning “to cheat or deceive” (as well as the noun, meaning “a thief”), but there is reason to doubt that explanation. “Gyp” in this sense didn’t appear until the late 19th century, and it appeared in the US, where the Roma were not all that common. “Gyp” in the “cheat” sense may actually come from “gippo,” a much older term for a kitchen worker (from the French “juppeau,” a kind of short tunic).

The reputation of the Roma for nomadic wandering underlies several uses of “gypsy” in colloquial English. “Gypsy cabs” in large cities are taxicabs that, while either unlicensed or licensed only to operate “on call,” roam the streets illegally picking up fares. A “gypsy truck” is one operating in an area where it has no home depot. Other businesses and occupations operating in an unlicensed and/or sporadic fashion, such as small logging operations, are also tagged with the adjective “gypsy.”

I have been, as yet, unable to pin down a debut date for “gypsy” in the sense of “a dancer or chorus member in the company of a musical play,” but, based on what I have found, I’d be willing to bet that the term dates back to at least the 1940s, and quite possibly much earlier. Oddly enough, I have yet to find a dictionary that even lists “gypsy” in this sense, which is strange, since it’s hardly obscure. In any case, the term “gypsy” in the theatrical sense comes from the fact that dancers or chorus singers work in one show during its run (on Broadway, for instance), and then move on to another, frequently performing in many dozens of shows in the course of their careers. Some “gypsies” eventually, after years of hard work, graduate to starring roles and fame; the actress, singer and dancer Chita Rivera is perhaps the most notable example of starting out as a “gypsy” and ending up a major star.

You’d think that the peripatetic nature of such a career would dictate a somewhat individualistic lifestyle, but apparently not. Gypsies stick together. A fascinating CBS Sunday Morning report from 2012 ( showcased the pre-show opening night Broadway ritual of the “Gypsy Robe,” in which the “gypsy” with the most show credits is honored with a robe festooned with the logos of all the shows in which previous winners have performed.

Outlaw / Criminal

I’d prefer some cannoli.

Dear Word Detective:  While watching one of my favorite TV shows on FX the other night, “Justified,” one of the good ‘ol boy bad guys told some white collar bad guys that “you are criminals for what you have done, but you will never be an outlaw.” I got the impression that to be an outlaw was a lifestyle, and a criminal is someone who has broken the law, but may not make a habit of it. Is there a distinction between the two? — Brock Lohse.

OK, so ATW (According to Wikipedia), “Justified” centers on the law-enforcement adventures of Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, exiled to Harlan County, Kentucky, after shooting a man in Miami. He shoots many more people in Kentucky, but the Wikipedia entry is pretty incoherent (they keep changing the spelling of Raylan/Raylon’s name, for instance), so it’s hard to tell whether the rats had it coming. “Justified” is now in its fourth season and a huge hit with critics, but I think it still has a ways to go to match Downton Abbey’s death toll.

“To live outside the law you must be honest,” Bob Dylan wrote in his 1966 song “Absolutely Sweet Marie,” and the mythic “outlaw” has always played a mythic role in the folk culture of the US (e.g., Jesse James, Bonnie & Clyde, Lindsay Lohan). (Incidentally, Dylan apparently borrowed that line from a 1958 movie, making him a tiny outlaw himself.) Although “outlaw” and “criminal” are often considered, and used as, synonyms, there is, as it happens, a real difference between the two terms worth exploring.

“Criminal” is both an adjective, which first appeared in the 15th century, and a noun, which didn’t show up until about 100 years later. The root of “criminal” is, of course, “crime,” which comes ultimately from the Latin “crimen,” meaning “crime, accusation, offense” and similar things. As an adjective, “criminal” applies to applies to something regarding, involving or constituting a crime; as a noun it means a person who commits crimes. The adjective can be a little tricky, and context is important. A “criminal attorney,” for instance, can be a lawyer who specializes in criminal cases or a lawyer who robs gas stations on the weekends. I once worked for a criminal lawyer who had been disbarred for an assault conviction, which I suppose made him a criminal criminal lawyer, although he seemed like a nice guy. One Christmas he gave me a nice shiny gun as a gift. I gave it right back.

While “criminal” has developed various senses over time, the core meaning of the term hasn’t varied much. “Outlaw,” however, has a more interesting history. Old English adopted “outlaw” from a Scandinavian source (something akin to Old Icelandic “utlagi”) combining roots meaning simply “outside” and “law.” Prior to the establishment of the legal system and due process in English law with the Magna Carta in 1215, to be declared an “outlaw” was a form of social exile as punishment for serious crimes. An “outlaw” was “outside the law” in the sense that the person was denied the protection of any law, and could be deprived of property and life by anyone, with no recourse to any legal rights. A sentence of “outlawry” meant banishment at best and often amounted to a de facto death sentence.

With the development of due process, habeas corpus and such good stuff beginning in the 13th century, the meaning of “outlaw” gradually shifted to its modern meaning of a person who has committed a crime (or many crimes) and is being actively sought for arrest and trial by the legal authorities. So an “outlaw” today tries mightily to avoid the legal system denied to the original “outlaws.” “Outlaw” today also carries a sense of long-term estrangement from society, a person who has decided to become a “career criminal.” Thus an accountant who fudges a few figures for profit on one occasion might well be derided as a mere “criminal” by an “outlaw” running a money-laundering empire.


Up in the air, Junior Bird-puters.

Dear Word Detective:  There’s been a lot of talk lately about “drones,” the military kind, and the other day it occurred to me that I have no idea of where the word came from. Is the robot-aircraft kind of “drone” somehow related to the “droning” monotone many of my college professors used in lectures? Does the word have to do with the fact that the drone’s flight is remotely-controlled and thus the machine itself is “mindless”? — Bill Kaplan.

Funny you should ask about drones. It’s beginning to seem like every time I tune into the Situation Room or Run For Your Life News or Katy Bar The Door! Update, somebody has hit fast forward and there’s a new drone story to top off my fear and loathing tank. Thus I read, last week, that the US Air Force is now training more “drone pilots” (who “fly” from recliners in a trailer) than it is training actual pilots who fly, y’know, in actual planes. Then a few days ago, a small unidentified drone almost collided with an Alitalia airliner over New York City. It seems to be a bit late to wonder what could possibly go wrong, kids. I just hope Skynet comes on line soon and straightens out this mess.

Although most of us have become familiar with military drones within just the past few years, robot aircraft are nothing new, and attempts to develop working “drones” began in the early 20th century. Since World War II, various kinds of “drones” have been used for target practice, research, exploration, surveillance and many other tasks. “Drone” was first used in this sense in 1946. The technical sophistication of drones has, of course, varied over the years; some were simply regular airplanes (usually obsolete) fitted with a rudimentary remote control apparatus. But whether the “drone” was simple or sophisticated, its signature characteristic was that no human was aboard to guide its flight (thus the initialism preferred by the agencies that fly drones, UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)). There have also been non-flying “drones” developed over the years, including pilotless submarines and various land-based robots used by police agencies, etc.

Considering that some aerial “drones” cost tens of millions of dollars and employ super-secret computer stuff, it’s kind of cool that the term itself comes from the Rodney Dangerfield of the insect world, the bee known since Old English as the “drone.” Drones are male honey bees who have no stinger, don’t make honey as the female worker bees do, and exist solely to mate with the queen bee. Since they produce no honey, drones were considered “lazy” and unproductive before the finer points of bee sociology were known, and that sense of “mindless idler” has long been extended to both machines that run themselves and unimaginative people who live their lives “in a rut,” devoid of creativity or initiative (“The lands are held by active men and not by drones,” B. Disraeli, 1845).

As for your professors, you may rightly suspect that they were trying to bore you to death, but in fact they were demonstrating the likely etymology of “drone.” The word “drone,” which has relatives in several Germanic languages, is probably ultimately “onomatopoeic” or “echoic,” formed in imitation of the monotonous humming sound of hundreds of bees doing bee stuff together. That monotonous buzzing sound was first called a “drone” in the 16th century. The verb “to drone,” meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “To give forth a continued monotonous sound; to hum or buzz, as a bee or a bagpipe; to talk in a monotonous tone,” appeared at roughly the same time.