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English Gipsies and Their Language, by Charles G. Leland, [1874], at


Difficulty of coming to an Understanding with Gipsies.—The Cabman.—Rommany for French.—”Wanderlust.”—Gipsy Politeness.—The Tinker and the Painting.—Secrets of Bat-catching.—The Piper of Hamelin, and the Tinker’s Opinion of the Story.—The Walloon Tinker of Spa.—Argôt.

One summer day in London, in 1871, I was seated alone in an artist’s studio. Suddenly I heard without, beneath the window, the murmur of two voices, and the sleepy, hissing, grating sound of a scissors-grinder’s wheel.

By me lay a few tools, one of which, a chisel, was broken. I took it, went softly to the window, and looked down.

There was the wheel, including all the apparatus of a travelling tinker. I looked to see if I could discover in the two men who stood by it any trace of the Rommany. One, a fat, short, mind-his-own-business, ragged son of the roads, who looked, however, as if a sturdy drinker might be hidden in his shell, was evidently not my “affair.” He seemed to be the “Co.” of the firm.

But by him, and officiating at the wheeling smithy, stood a taller figure—the face to me invisible—which I scrutinised more nearly. And the instant I observed his hat I said to myself, “This looks like it.”

For dilapidated, worn, wretched as that hat was, there was in it an attempt, though indescribably humble, to be something melo-dramatic, foreign, Bohemian, and poetic. It was the mere blind, dull, dead germ of an effort—not even life—only the ciliary movement of an antecedent embryo—and yet it had got beyond Anglo-Saxondom. No costermonger, or common cad, or true Englishman, ever yet had that indefinable touch of the opera-supernumerary in the streets. It was a sombrero.

“That’s the man for me,” I said. So I called him, and gave him the chisel, and after a while went down. He was grinding away, and touched his hat respectfully as I approached.

Now the reader is possibly aware that of all difficult tasks one of the most difficult is to induce a disguised Gipsy, or even a professed one, to utter a word of Rommany to a man not of the blood. Of this all writers on the subject have much to say. For it is so black-swanish, I may say so centenarian in unfrequency, for a gentleman to speak Gipsy, that the Zingaro thus addressed is at once subjected to morbid astonishment and nervous fears, which under his calm countenance and infinite “cheek” are indeed concealed, but which speedily reduce themselves to two categories.

1. That Rommany is the language of men at war with the law; therefore you are either a detective who has acquired it for no healthy purpose, or else you yourself are a scamp so high up in the profession that it behooves all the little fish of outlawdom to beware of you.

2. Or else—what is quite as much to be dreaded—you are indeed a gentleman, but one seeking to make fun of him, and possibly able to do so. At any rate, your knowledge of Rommany is a most alarming coin of vantage. Certainly, reader, you know that a regular London streeter, say a cabman, would rather go to jail than be beaten in a chaffing match. I nearly drove a hansom into sheer convulsions one night, about the time this chapter happened, by a very light puzzler indeed. I had hesitated between him and another.

“You don’t know your own mind,” said the disappointed candidate to me.

Mind your own business,” I replied. It was a poor palindrome,  38 reader—hardly worth telling—yet it settled him. But he swore—oh, of course he did—he swore beautifully.

Therefore, being moved to caution, I approached calmly and gazed earnestly on the revolving wheel.

“Do you know,” I said, “I think a great deal of your business, and take a great interest in it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I can tell you all the names of your tools in French. You’d like to hear them, wouldn’t you?”

“Wery much indeed, sir.”

So I took up the chisel. “This,” I said, “is a churi, sometimes called a chinomescro.”

“That’s the French for it, is it, sir?” replied the tinker, gravely. Not a muscle of his face moved.

“The coals,” I added, “are hangars or wongurs, sometimes called kaulos.”

“Never heerd the words before in my life,” quoth the sedate tinker.

“The bellows is a pudemengro. Some call it a pishota.”

“Wery fine language, sir, is French,” rejoined the tinker. In every instance he repeated the words after me, and pronounced them correctly, which I had not invariably done. “Wery fine language. But it’s quite new to me.”

“You wouldn’t think now,” I said, affably, “that I had ever been on the roads!”

The tinker looked at me from my hat to my boots, and solemnly replied—

“I should say it was wery likely. From your language, sir, wery likely indeed.”

I gazed as gravely back as if I had not been at that instant the worst sold man in London, and asked—

“Can you rākher Rommanis?” (i.e., speak Gipsy.)

And he said he could.

Then we conversed. He spoke English intermingled with Gipsy, stopping from time to time to explain to his assistant, or to teach him a word. This portly person appeared to be about as well up in the English Gipsy as myself—that is, he knew it quite as imperfectly. I learned that the master had been in America, and made New York and Brooklyn glad by his presence, while Philadelphia, my native city had been benefited as to its scissors and morals by him.

“And as I suppose you made money there, why didn’t you remain?” I inquired.

The Gipsy—for he was really a Gipsy, and not a half-scrag—looked at me wistfully, and apparently a little surprised that I should ask him such a question.

“Why, sir, you know that we can’t keep still. Somethin’ kept telling me to move on, and keep a movin’. Some day I’ll go back again.”

Suddenly—I suppose because a doubt of my perfect Freemasonry had been aroused by my absurd question—he said, holding up a kettle—

“What do you call this here in Rommanis?”

“I call it a kekávi or a kavi,” I said. “But it isn’t right Rommany. It’s Greek, which the Rommanichals picked up on their way here.”

And here I would remark, by the way, that I have seldom spoken to a Gipsy in England who did not try me on the word for kettle.

“And what do you call a face?” he added.

“I call a face a mui,” I said, “and a nose a nāk; and as for mui, I call rikker tiro mui, ‘hold your jaw.’ That is German Rommany.”

The tinker gazed at me admiringly, and then said, “You’re ‘deep’ Gipsy, I see, sir—that’s what you are.”

Mo rov a jaw; mo rākker so drován?” I answered. “Don’t talk so loud; do you think I want all the Gorgios around here to know I talk Gipsy? Come in; jāl adrée the ker and pi a curro levinor.”

The tinker entered. As with most Gipsies there was really, despite the want of “education,” a real politeness—a singular intuitive refinement pervading all his actions, which indicated, through many centuries of brutalisation, that fountain-source of all politeness—the Oriental. Many a time I have found among Gipsies whose life, and food, and dress, and abject ignorance, and dreadful poverty were far below that of most paupers and prisoners, a delicacy in speaking to and acting before ladies, and a tact in little things, utterly foreign to the great majority of poor Anglo-Saxons, and not by any means too common in even higher classes.

For example, there was a basket of cakes on the table, which cakes were made like soldiers in platoons. Now Mr Katzimengro, or Scissorman, as I call him, not being familiar with the anatomy of such delicate and winsome māro, or bread, was startled to find, when he picked up one biscuit de Rheims, that he had taken a row. Instantly he darted at me an astonished and piteous glance, which said—

“I cannot, with my black tinker fingers, break off and put the cakes back again; I do not want to take all—it looks greedy.”

So I said, “Put them in your pocket.” And he did so, quietly. I have never seen anything done with a better grace.

On the easel hung an unfinished picture, representing the Piper of Hamelin surrounded by rats without number. The Gipsy appeared to be much interested in it.

“I used to be a rat-catcher myself,” he said. “I learned the business under old Lee, who was the greatest rat-catcher in England. I suppose you know, of course, sir, how to draw rats?”

“Certainly,” I replied. “Oil of rhodium. I have known a house to be entirely cleared by it. There were just thirty-six rats in the house, and they had a trap which held exactly twelve. For three nights they caught a dozen, and that finished the congregation.”

“Aniseed is better,” replied the Gipsy, solemnly. (By the way, another and an older Gipsy afterwards told me that he used caraway-oil and the heads of dried herrings.) “And if you’ve got a rat, sir, anywhere in this here house, I’ll bring it to you in five minutes.”

He did, in fact, subsequently bring the artist as models for the picture two very pretty rats, which he had quite tamed while catching them.

“But what does the picture mean, sir?” he inquired, with curiosity.

“Once upon a time,” I replied, “there was a city in Germany which was overrun with rats. They teased the dogs and worried the cats, and bit the babies in the cradle, and licked the soup from the cook’s own ladle.”

“There must have been an uncommon lot of them, sir,” replied the tinker, gravely.

“There was. Millions of them. Now in those days there were no Rommanichals, and consequently no rat-catchers.”

“’Taint so now-a-days,” replied the Gipsy, gloomily. “The business is quite spiled, and not to get a livin’ by.”

“Āvo. And by the time the people had almost gone crazy, one day there came a man—a Gipsy—the first Gipsy who had ever been seen in dovo tem (or that country). And he agreed for a thousand crowns to clear all the rats away. So he blew on a pipe, and the rats all followed him out of town.”

“What did he blow on a pipe for?”

“Just for hokkerben, to humbug them. I suppose he had oils rubbed on his heels. But when he had drawn the rats away and asked for his money, they would not give it to him. So then, what do you think he did?”

“I suppose—ah, I see,” said the Gipsy, with a shrewd look. “He went and drew ’em all back again.”

“No; he went, and this time piped all the children away. They all went after him—all except one little lame boy—and that was the last of it.”

The Gipsy looked earnestly at me, and then, as if I puzzled, but with an expression of perfect faith, he asked—

“And is that all tácho—all a fact—or is it made up, you know?”

“Well, I think it is partly one and partly the other. You see, that in those days Gipsies were very scarce, and people were very much astonished at rat-drawing, and so they made a queer story of it.”

“But how about the children?”

“Well,” I answered; “I suppose you have heard occasionally that Gipsies used to chore Gorgios’ chavis—steal people’s children?”

Very grave indeed was the assent yielded to this explanation. He had heard it among other things.

My dear Mr Robert Browning, I little thought, when I suggested to the artist your poem of the piper, that I should ever retail the story in Rommany to a tinker. But who knows with whom he may associate in this life, or whither he may drift on the great white rolling sea of humanity? Did not Lord Lytton, unless the preface to Pelham err, himself once tarry in the tents of the Egyptians? and did not Christopher North also wander with them, and sing—

“Oh, little did my mother think,
  The day she cradled me,
The lands that I should travel in,
  Or the death that I should dee;
Or gae rovin’ about wi’ tinkler loons,
  And sic-like companie”?

“You know, sir,” said the Gipsy, “that we have two languages. For besides the Rummany, there’s the reg’lar cant, which all tinkers talk.”

Kennick you mean?”

“Yes, sir; that’s the Rummany for it. A ‘dolly mort’ is Kennick, but it’s juva or rákli in Rummanis. It’s a girl, or a rom’s chi.”

“You say rom sometimes, and then rum.”

“There’s rums and roms, sir. The rum is a Gipsy, and a rom is a husband.”

“That’s your English way of calling it. All the rest of the world over there is only one word among Gipsies, and that is rom.”

Now, the allusion to Kennick or cant by a tinker, recalls an incident which, though not strictly Gipsy in its nature, I will nevertheless narrate.

In the summer of 1870 I spent several weeks at Spa, in the Ardennes. One day while walking I saw by the roadside a picturesque old tinker, looking neither better nor worse than the grinder made immortal by Teniers.

I was anxious to know if all of his craft in Belgium could speak Gipsy, and addressed him in that language, giving him at the same time my knife to grind. He replied politely in French that he did not speak Rommany, and only understood French and Walloon. Yet he seemed to understand perfectly the drift of my question, and to know what Gipsy was, and its nature, since after a pause he added, with a significant smile—

“But to tell the truth, monsieur, though I cannot talk Rommany, I know another secret language. I can speak Argôt fluently.”

Now, I retain in my memory, from reading the Memoirs of Vidocq thirty years ago, one or two phrases of this French thieves’ slang, and I at once replied that I knew a few words of it myself, adding—

Tu sais jaspiner en bigorne?”—you can talk argôt?

Oui, monsieur.”

Et tu vas roulant de vergne en vergne?”—and you go about from town to town?

Grave and keen, and with a queer smile, the tinker replied, very slowly—

“Monsieur knows the Gipsies” (here he shook his head), “and monsieur speaks argôt very well.” (A shrug.) “Perhaps he knows more than he credits himself with. Perhaps” (and here his wink was diabolical)—“perhaps monsieur knows the entire tongue!”

Spa is full not only of gamblers, but of numbers of well-dressed Parisian sharpers who certainly know “the entire tongue.” I hastened to pay my tinker, and went my way homewards. Ross Browne was accused in Syria of having “burgled” onions, and the pursuit of philology has twice subjected me to be suspected by tinkers as a flourishing member of the “dangerous classes.”

But to return to my rat-catcher. As I quoted a verse of German Gipsy song, he manifested an interest in it, and put me several questions with regard to the race in other lands.

“I wish I was a rich gentleman. I would like to travel like you, sir, and have nothing to do but go about from land to land, looking after our Rummany people as you do, and learnin’ everything Rummany. Is it true, sir, we come from Egypt?”

“No. I think not. There are Gipsies in Egypt, but there is less Rommany in their jib (language) than in any other Gipsy tribe in the world. The Gipsies came from India.”

“And don’t you think, sir, that we’re of the children of the lost Ten Tribes?”

“I am quite sure that you never had a drop of blood in common with them. Tell me, do you know any Gipsy gilis—any songs?”

“Only a bit of a one, sir; most of it isn’t fit to sing, but it begins—”

And here he sang:

“Jal ’drée the ker my honey,
And you shall be my rom.”

And chanting this, after thanking me, he departed, gratified with his gratuity, rejoiced at his reception, and most undoubtedly benefited by the beer with which I had encouraged his palaver—a word, by the way, which is not inappropriate, since it contains in itself the very word of words, the lav, which means a word, and is most antiquely and excellently Gipsy. Pehlevi is old Persian, and to pen lavi is Rommany all the world over “to speak words.”

Next: Chapter IV. Gipsy Respect For the Dead