The Gypsies
by Charles G. Leland
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Snips Scissors (slang). Dingle fakir A bell-hanger. Dunnovans Potatoes. Fay (vulgarly fee) Meat.

Our informant declared that there are vulgar forms of certain words.

Gladdher Ring the changes (cheat in change).

"No minkler would have a bewr who couldn't gladdher."

Reesbin Prison. Tre-moon Three months, a 'drag.' Rauniel, Runniel Beer. Max Spirits (slang). Chiv Knife. (Romany, a pointed knife, i.e. tongue.) Thari To speak or tell.

"I tharied the soobri I sonnied him." (I told the man I saw him.)


Our informant did not know whether this word, of Romany origin, meant, in Shelta, policeman or magistrate.

Scri, scree To write.

Our informant suggested scribe as the origin of this word.

Reader A writ.

"You're readered soobri." (You are put in the "Police Gazette," friend.)

Our informant could give only a single specimen of the Shelta literature. It was as follows:—

"My name is Barney Mucafee, With my borers and jumpers down to my thee (thigh). An' it's forty miles I've come to kerrb yer pee."

This vocabulary is, as he declared, an extremely imperfect specimen of the language. He did not claim to speak it well. In its purity it is not mingled with Romany or thieves' slang. Perhaps some student of English dialects may yet succeed in recovering it all. The pronunciation of many of the words is singular, and very different from English or Romany.

Just as the last word was written down, there came up a woman, a female tramp of the most hardened kind. It seldom happens that gentlemen sit down in familiar friendly converse with vagabonds. When they do they are almost always religious people, anxious to talk with the poor for the good of their souls. The talk generally ends with a charitable gift. Such was the view (as the vagabond afterwards told us) which she took of our party. I also infer that she thought we must be very verdant and an easy prey. Almost without preliminary greeting she told us that she was in great straits,—suffering terribly,—and appealed to the man for confirmation, adding that if we would kindly lend her a sovereign it should be faithfully repaid in the morning.

The professor burst out laughing. But the fern-collector gazed at her in wrath and amazement.

"I say, old woman," he cried; "do you know who you're rakkerin [speaking] to? This here gentleman is one of the deepest Romany ryes [gypsy gentlemen] a-going. And that there one could gladdher you out of your eye-teeth."

She gave one look of dismay,—I shall never forget that look,—and ran away. The witch had chanced upon Arbaces. I think that the tramp had been in his time a man in better position. He was possibly a lawyer's clerk who had fallen into evil ways. He spoke English correctly when not addressing the beggar woman. There was in Aberystwith at the same time another fern-seller, an elderly man, as wretched and as ragged a creature as I ever met. Yet he also spoke English purely, and could give in Latin the names of all the plants which he sold. I have always supposed that the tinkers' language spoken of by Shakespeare was Romany; but I now incline to think it may have been Shelta.

Time passed, and "the levis grene" had fallen thrice from the trees, and I had crossed the sea and was in my native city of Philadelphia. It was a great change after eleven years of Europe, during ten of which I had "homed," as gypsies say, in England. The houses and the roads were old-new to me; there was something familiar-foreign in the voices and ways of those who had been my earliest friends; the very air as it blew hummed tunes which had lost tones in them that made me marvel. Yet even here I soon found traces of something which is the same all the world over, which goes ever on "as of ever," and that was the wanderer of the road. Near the city are three distinct gypsyries, where in summer-time the wagon and the tent may be found; and ever and anon, in my walks about town, I found interesting varieties of vagabonds from every part of Europe. Italians of the most Bohemian type, who once had been like angels,—and truly only in this, that their visits of old were few and far between,—now swarmed as fruit dealers and boot-blacks in every lane; Germans were of course at home; Czechs, or Slavs, supposed to be Germans, gave unlimited facilities for Slavonian practice; while tinkers, almost unknown in 1860, had in 1880 become marvelously common, and strange to say were nearly all Austrians of different kinds. And yet not quite all, and it was lucky for me they were not. For one morning, as I went into the large garden which lies around the house wherein I wone, I heard by the honeysuckle and grape-vine a familiar sound,—suggestive of the road and Romanys and London, and all that is most traveler-esque. It was the tap, tap, tap of a hammer and the clang of tin, and I knew by the smoke that so gracefully curled at the end of the garden a tinker was near. And I advanced to him, and as he glanced up and greeted, I read in his Irish face long rambles on the roads.


"Good-mornin', sorr!"

"You're an old traveler?"

"I am, sorr."

"Can you rakker Romanes?"

"I can, sorr!"

"Pen yer nav." (Tell your name.)

"Owen —-, sorr."

A brief conversation ensued, during which we ascertained that we had many friends in common in the puro tem or Ould Country. All at once a thought struck me, and I exclaimed,—

"Do you know any other languages?"

"Yes, sorr: Ould Irish an' Welsh, an' a little Gaelic."

"That's all?"

"Yes, sorr, all av thim."

"All but one?"

"An' what's that wan, sorr?"

"Can you thari shelta, subli?"

No tinker was ever yet astonished at anything. If he could be he would not be a tinker. If the coals in his stove were to turn to lumps of gold in a twinkle, he would proceed with leisurely action to rake them out and prepare them for sale, and never indicate by a word or a wink that anything remarkable had occurred. But Owen the tinker looked steadily at me for an instant, as if to see what manner of man I might be, and then said,—

"Shelta, is it? An' I can talk it. An' there's not six min livin' as can talk it as I do."

"Do you know, I think it's very remarkable that you can talk Shelta."

"An' begorra, I think it's very remarkable, sorr, that ye should know there is such a language."

"Will you give me a lesson?"

"Troth I will."

I went into the house and brought out a note-book. One of the servants brought me a chair. Owen went on soldering a tin dish, and I proceeded to take down from him the following list of words in Shelta:

Theddy Fire (theinne. Irish). Strawn Tin. Blyhunka Horse. Leicheen Girl. Soobli Male, man. Binny soobli Boy. Binny Small. Chimmel Stick. Gh'ratha, grata Hat. Griffin, or gruffin Coat. Respes Trousers. Gullemnocks Shoes. Grascot Waistcoat. Skoich, or skoi Button. Numpa Sovereign, one pound. Gorhead, or godhed Money. Merrih Nose (?). Nyock Head. Graigh Hair. Kaine, or kyni Ears (Romany, kan). Melthog Inner shirt. Medthel Black. Cunnels Potatoes. Faihe, or feye Meat (feoil. Gaelic). Muogh Pig (muck. Irish). Miesli, misli To go (origin of "mizzle"?) Mailyas, or moillhas Fingers (meirleach, stealers Gaelic). Shaidyog Policeman. Respun To steal. Shoich Water, blood, liquid. Alemnoch Milk. Raglan, or reglan Hammer. Goppa Furnace, smith (gobha, a smith. Gaelic). Terry A heating-iron. Khoi Pincers. Chimmes (compare chimmel) Wood or stick. Mailyas Arms. Koras Legs (cos, leg. Gaelic). Skoihopa Whisky. Bulla (ull as in gull) A letter. Thari Word, language. Mush Umbrella (slang). Lyesken cherps Telling fortunes. Loshools Flowers (lus, erb or flower? Gaelic). Dainoch To lose. Chaldroch Knife (caldock, sharply pointed. Gaelic). Bog To get. Masheen Cat. Cambra Dog. Laprogh Goose, duck. Kaldthog Hen. Rumogh Egg. Kiena House (ken, old gypsy and modern cant). Rawg Wagon. Gullemnoch Shoes. Analt To sweep, to broom. Analken To wash. D'erri Bread. R'ghoglin (gogh'leen) To laugh. Kradyin To stop, stay, sit, lodge, remain. Oura Town. Lashool Nice (lachool. Irish). Moinni, or moryeni Good (min, pleasant. Gaelic). Moryenni yook Good man. Gyami Bad (cam. Gaelic). Probably the origin of the common canting term gammy, bad. Ishkimmisk Drunk (misgeach. Gaelic) Roglan A four-wheeled vehicle. Lorch A two-wheeled vehicle. Smuggle Anvil. Granya Nail. Riaglon Iron. Gushuk Vessel of any kind. Tedhi, thedi Coal; fuel of any kind. Grawder Solder. Tanyok Halfpenny. (Query tani, little, Romany, and nyok, a head.) Chlorhin To hear. Sunain To see. Salkaneoch To taste, take. Mailyen To feel (cumail, to hold. Gaelic). Crowder String. Sobye (?) Mislain Raining (mizzle?). Goo-ope, guop Cold. Skoichen Rain. Thomyok Magistrate. Shadyog Police. Bladhunk Prison. Bogh To get. Salt Arrested, taken. Straihmed A year. Gotherna, guttema Policeman. [A very rare old word.] Dyukas, or Jukas Gorgio, Gentile; one not of the class. Misli Coming, to come, to send. To my-deal To me. Lychyen People. Grannis Know. Skolaia To write. Skolaiyami A good scholar. Nyok Head. Lurk Eye. Menoch Nose. Glorhoch Ear. Koris Feet. Tashi shingomai To read the newspaper. Gorheid Money. Tomgarheid (i.e. big money) Gold. Skawfer, skawper Silver. Tomnumpa Bank-note. Terri Coal. Ghoi Put. Nyadas Table. Kradyin Being, lying. Tarryin Rope. Kor'heh Box. Miseli Quick. Krad'hyi Slow. Th-mddusk Door. Khaihed Chair (khahir. Irish). Bord Table. Grainyog Window. Rumog Egg. Aidh Butter. Okonneh A priest. Thus explained in a very Irish manner: "Okonneh, or Koony, is a sacred man, and kuni in Romany means secret. An' sacret and sacred, sure, are all the same." Shliema Smoke, pipe. Munches Tobacco. Khadyogs Stones. Yiesk Fish (iasg. Gaelic). Cab Cabbage. Cherpin Book. This appears to be vulgar. Llyower was on second thought declared to be the right word. (Leabhar, Gaelic.) Misli dainoch To write a letter; to write; that is, send or go. Misli to my bewr Write to my woman. Gritche Dinner. Gruppa Supper. Goihed To leave, lay down. Lurks Eyes. Ainoch Thing. Clisp To fall, let fall. Clishpen To break by letting fall. Guth, gut Black. Gothni, gachlin Child. Styemon Rat. Krepoch Cat. Grannien With child. Loshub Sweet. Shum To own. L'yogh To lose. Crimum Sheep. Khadyog Stone. Nglou Nail. Gial Yellow, red. Talosk Weather. Laprogh Bird. Madel Tail. Carob To cut. Lubran, luber To hit. Thom Violently. Mish it thom Hit it hard. Subli, or soobli Man (siublach, a vagrant. Gaelic).

There you are, readers! Make good cheer of it, as Panurge said of what was beyond him. For what this language really is passeth me and mine. Of Celtic origin it surely is, for Owen gave me every syllable so garnished with gutturals that I, being even less of one of the Celtes than a Chinaman, have not succeeded in writing a single word according to his pronunciation of it. Thus even Minklers sounds more like minkias, or pikias, as he gave it.

To the foregoing I add the numerals and a few phrases:—

Hain, or heen One. Do Two. Tri Three. Ch'air, or k'hair Four. Cood Five. She, or shay Six. Schaacht, or schach' Seven. Ocht Eight. Ayen, or nai Nine. Dy'ai, djai, or dai Ten. Hinniadh Eleven. Do yed'h Twelve. Trin yedh Thirteen. K'hair yedh, etc. Fourteen, etc. Tat 'th chesin ogomsa That belongs to me. Grannis to my deal It belongs to me. Dioch maa krady in in this nadas I am staying here. Tash emilesh He is staying there. Boghin the brass Cooking the food. My deal is mislin I am going. The nidias of the kiena don't The people of the house don't know granny what we're a tharyin what we're saying.

This was said within hearing of and in reference to a bevy of servants, of every hue save white, who were in full view in the kitchen, and who were manifestly deeply interested and delighted in our interview, as well as in the constant use of my note-book, and our conference in an unknown tongue, since Owen and I spoke frequently in Romany.

That bhoghd out yer mailya You let that fall from your hand.

I also obtained a verse of a ballad, which I may not literally render into pure English:—

"Cosson kailyah corrum me morro sari, Me gul ogalyach mir; Rahet manent trasha moroch Me tu sosti mo diele."

"Coming from Galway, tired and weary, I met a woman; I'll go bail by this time to-morrow, You'll have had enough of me."

Me tu sosti, "Thou shalt be (of) me," is Romany, which is freely used in Shelta.

The question which I cannot solve is, On which of the Celtic languages is this jargon based? My informant declares that it is quite independent of Old Irish, Welsh, or Gaelic. In pronunciation it appears to be almost identical with the latter; but while there are Gaelic words in it, it is certain that much examination and inquiry have failed to show that it is contained in that language. That it is "the talk of the ould Picts—thim that built the stone houses like beehives"—is, I confess, too conjectural for a philologist. I have no doubt that when the Picts were suppressed thousands of them must have become wandering outlaws, like the Romany, and that their language in time became a secret tongue of vagabonds on the roads. This is the history of many such lingoes; but unfortunately Owen's opinion, even if it be legendary, will not prove that the Painted People spoke the Shelta tongue. I must call attention, however, to one or two curious points. I have spoken of Shelta as a jargon; but it is, in fact, a language, for it can be spoken grammatically and without using English or Romany. And again, there is a corrupt method of pronouncing it, according to English, while correctly enunciated it is purely Celtic in sound. More than this I have naught to say.

Shelta is perhaps the last Old British dialect as yet existing which has thus far remained undiscovered. There is no hint of it in John Camden Hotten's Slang Dictionary, nor has it been recognized by the Dialect Society. Mr. Simson, had he known the "Tinklers" better, would have found that not Romany, but Shelta, was the really secret language which they employed, although Romany is also more or less familiar to them all. To me there is in it something very weird and strange. I cannot well say why; it seems as if it might be spoken by witches and talking toads, and uttered by the Druid stones, which are fabled to come down by moonlight to the water-side to drink, and who will, if surprised during their walk, answer any questions. Anent which I would fain ask my Spiritualist friends one which I have long yearned to put. Since you, my dear ghost-raisers, can call spirits from the vasty deep of the outside-most beyond, will you not—having many millions from which to call—raise up one of the Pictish race, and, having brought it in from the Ewigkeit, take down a vocabulary of the language? Let it be a lady par preference,—the fair being by far the more fluent in words. Moreover, it is probable that as the Picts were a painted race, woman among them must have been very much to the fore, and that Madame Rachels occupied a high position with rouge, enamels, and other appliances to make them young and beautiful forever. According to Southey, the British blue-stocking is descended from these woad-stained ancestresses, which assertion dimly hints at their having been literary. In which case, voila notre affaire! for then the business would be promptly done. Wizards of the secret spells, I adjure ye, raise me a Pictess for the sake of philology—and the picturesque!


{19} From the observations of Frederic Drew (The Northern Barrier of India, London, 1877) there can be little doubt that the Dom, or Dum, belong to the pre-Aryan race or races of India. "They are described in the Shastras as Sopukh, or Dog-Eaters" (Types of India). I have somewhere met with the statement that the Dom was pre-Aryan, but allowed to rank as Hindoo on account of services rendered to the early conquerors.

{22} Up-stairs in this gentleman's dialect signified up or upon, like top Pidgin-English.

{23} Puccasa, Sanskrit. Low, inferior. Given by Pliny E. Chase in his Sanskrit Analogues as the root-word for several inferior animals.

{26} A Trip up the Volga to the Fair of Nijni-Novgovod. By H. A. Munro Butler Johnstone. 1875.

{42} Seven Years in the Deserts of America.

{61} In Old English Romany this is called dorrikin; in common parade, dukkerin. Both forms are really old.

{68} Flower-flag-nation man; that is, American.

{69a} Leadee, reads.

{69b} Dly, dry.

{69c} Lun, run.

{82} Diamonds true. O latcho bar (in England, tatcho bar), "the true or real stone," is the gypsy for a diamond.

{97} Within a mile, Maginn lies buried, without a monument.

{108} Mashing, a word of gypsy origin (mashdva), meaning fascination by the eye, or taking in.

{125} Goerres, Christliche Mystik, i. 296. 1. 23.

{134} The Saxons in England, i. 3.

{159} Peru urphu! "Increase and multiply!" Vide Bodenschatz Kirchliche Verfassung der Juden, part IV. ch. 4, sect. 2.

{209} The Past in the Present, part 2, lect. 3

{222} Yoma, fol. 21, col. 2.

{238} Zimbel. The cymbal of the Austrian gypsies is a stringed instrument, like the zitter.

{241} Crocus, in common slang an itinerant quack, mountebank, or seller of medicine; Pitcher, a street dealer.

{270} A brief resume of the most characteristic gypsy mode of obtaining property.

{279} Lady, in gypsy rani. The process of degradation is curiously marked in this language. Rani (rawnee), in Hindi, is a queen. Rye, or rae, a gentleman, in its native land, is applicable to a nobleman, while rashai, a clergyman, even of the smallest dissenting type, rises in the original rishi to a saint of the highest order.

{280} This was the very same affair and the same gypsies described and mentioned on page 383 of In Gypsy Tents, by Francis Hindes Groome, Edinburgh, 1880. I am well acquainted with them.

{285} Primulaveris: in German Schlussel blume, that is, key flowers; also Mary's-keys and keys of heaven. Both the primrose and tulip are believed in South Germany to be an Open Sesame to hidden treasure.

{292} Omar Khayyam, Rubaiyat.

{293} Johnnykin and the Goblins. London: Macmillan.

{302a} Vide Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, vol. xvi. part 2, 1856 p. 285.

{302b} Die Zigeuner.

{307a} The Dialect of the English Gypsies.

{307b} I beg the reader to bear it in mind that all this is literally as it was given by an old gypsy, and that I am not responsible for its accuracy or inaccuracy.

{317a} Literally, the earth-sewer.

{317b} Kali foki. Kalo means, as in Hindustani, not only black, but also lazy. Pronounced kaw-lo.

{319a} Gorgio. Gentile; any man not a gypsy. Possibly from ghora aji "Master white man," Hindu. Used as goi is applied by Hebrews to the unbelievers.

{319b} Romeli, rom'ni. Wandering, gypsying. It is remarkable that remna, in Hindu, means to roam.

{320} Chollo-tem. Whole country, world.

{324} There is a great moral difference, not only in the gypsy mind, but in that of the peasant, between stealing and poaching. But in fact, as regards the appropriation of poultry of any kind, a young English gypsy has neither more nor less scruple than other poor people of his class.

{325} Man lana, Hindostani: to set the heart upon. Manner, Eng. Gyp.: to encourage; also, to forbid.

{327} Chovihan, m., chovihani, fem., often cho'ian or cho'ani, a witch. Probably from the Hindu 'toanee, a witch, which has nearly the same pronunciation as the English gypsy word.

{335} Travels in Beloochistan and Scinde, p. 153.

{341a} English gypsies also call the moon shul and shone.

{341b} Tales and Traditions of the Eskimo, by Dr. Henry Rink. London 1875, p. 236.


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