A gypsy's warning - Meaning of expression

Discussion in 'English Only' started by James Brandon, Apr 12, 2006.

  1. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    I have heard and seen in writing the expression "a gypsy's warning". I take it to mean "a warning of an irrational nature, along the lines of someone reading a crystal ball or tea leaves and pretending to be able to tell you all about the future". E.g.: A gypsy's warning not to apply for a job because one may die on the 10th day of the 10th month in the job in question.

    When I first heard the expression, I must admit I thought it might be derogatory and refer to a warning made in an insincere manner, perhaps to fool or cheat the person, and better rob them - given general anti-gypsy prejudice down the ages in Europe. But I believe the meaning is more neutral and as described above (in my 1st paragraph).

    I find it a bit surprising that the expression is used freely in English in our PC times... I have seen it used in an article in the FT of the UK.

    Comments and insight welcome.
  2. maxiogee Banned

    I would read it to mean a more believable warning than just someone's gut feeling - Gypsy's having (created for themselves?) the reputation for prophecy.
  3. virtdave Senior Member

    english, USA
    Perhaps more numinous rather than more believable.
  4. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    It is interesting because different people appear to understand the expression in different ways - also depending on one's perception of prophetic powers (as attributed to "the gypsy" in the expression). In other words, the expression does relate, on balance, to a word of warning given by someone who is credited with near-supernatural powers (predicting the future, etc.). But, depending on whether we believe in such powers (in which case the warning should be heeded and it would be particularly valuable) or not (in which case the warning may be quietly ignored and is devalued), the expression has a different meaning.

    I would like to know if anyone has a clear-cut meaning available. I have found no definition in various dictionaries or on the web - only examples, and they are not always clear as to what the meaning is supposed to be.
  5. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I hear this as meaning quite the opposite to:
    ... a warning made in an insincere manner, perhaps to fool or cheat the person, and better rob them - given general anti-gypsy prejudice down the ages in Europe.

    A gipsy warning would be something given in all honesty and sincerity by someone who fervently believed in whatever method they used to divine the future. It may well be cryptic and difficult to interpret.

    Sorry JB, I am not meaning to contradict your view, only to report a completely contrary impression. Maybe we are more sympathetic to the gipsy's role over here?
  6. germinal

    germinal Senior Member

    Bradford, England
    England English

    Perhaps you can't pin it down as one thing or the other - it will surely depend on the context in which the phrase appears and the intention of the person using it. :) :(
  7. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
    I would interpret a gypsy's warning as a warning based on instinct as opposed to a warning based on hard, rational, logical facts.
  8. comsci

    comsci Senior Member

    Taiwan, Vancouver(B.C.) and the Rockies
    Mandarin, Taiwan(Yankees 40 Wang)
    It's simply any kind of warning/premonition that lacks scientific/logical evidence/proof/facts. I would not take it seriously if I were to be "warned."
  9. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    I'd go along with that. Add a measure of germinal's point about context and intent and two dashes of comsci's healthy scepticism. Shake carefully, pour into a chilled glass, drink with your eyes closed and sit for five minutes until the mixture has settled into your brain.

    What you have is intuitive advice. Sometimes it is right, sometimes wrong. Experience tells you which "gipsies" are worth listening to:)
  10. moodywop Banned

    Southern Italy
    Italian - Italy
    Caveat: what follows is just a report of what I observe every day and in no way based on prejudice.

    In Italy there are many gypsies begging in the street. Right now there are at least ten outside my block of flats in the town centre. If you don't give them any money a few of them utter words that sound like a mixture between a warning and a curse.

    Edit: SOED defines it as "a cryptic or sinister warning"
  11. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    Thank you for comments and insight - including from the contributor who happens to have 10 gypsies camping outside his front door, giving him plenty of opportunity to collect pieces of advice from the crowd in question!

    I never said that I actually thought that the meaning should be "advice given in an insincere manner" (if you go back to my 1st post). What I said was that, given the level of general prejudice in Europe down the centuries against gypsies (this level of prejudice being a fact in itself), a derogatory meaning would not have surprised me.

    It did not mean that I thought such derogatory meaning fair or ethically correct! In other words, it was not about what I think, but about what I suspected users of the expression may think or mean; and it was not about how justified the said meaning might be (objectively or morally), but how relevant it might be from a linguistic standpoint. I was trying to establish the meaning of a phrase; I was not defending an interpretation of reality.

    I have noticed before that there can be a confusion in people's minds as to which it is that one is talking about. (I hope the above is clear - I am not so sure.)

    Having said all that, and to go back to what Panj says, there may be less prejudice against gypsies in Ireland than there is, say, in Romania, Slovakia, France or Spain... Prejudice against so-called "travellers" in England is also linked to anti-gypsy feelings in Britain, I would say.

    On balance, "a gypsy's warning" would be, then, a cryptic word of warning given by somebody (whether a gypsy or not!), supposedly based on insight that would not be grounded in rational analysis, but rather insight based on instinct and maybe a claim that one is able to 'see' the future.

    There is no reason to believe that the advice given would be given in bad faith. On the other hand, there is no reason to believe that the average person in a Western society, today, would want to take the advice given seriously.

    But the Italian contributor's definition does include the notion of what might be a veiled threat ("sinister"). In that case, the "warning" takes on another meaning, closer to the derogatory one I was initially referring to. It is no longer a warning in the interest of the person who is warned ("don't do this or else something bad will happen to you," independently of the will of the gypsy giving the warning) but it becomes a warning serving the interest of the individual giving the warning, i.e. the gypsy ("if you don't do this, I will see to it that you suffer the consequences, so listen to me").

    In the last analysis, the "gypsy's warning" could be deemed useless, and some contributors imply as much, unless one is going to attribute genuine powers to the person warning you, and depending on their intent...
  12. You little ripper! Senior Member

    Australian English
    James, you might find this interesting. Link

    Webster's also gives it the meaning of cockney rhyming slang for morning. Link
  13. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK

    So, indeed, there is a more "sinister" meaning attached to the phrase, hence the reference in that other forum to "an ethnic slur".

    The parallel drawn by one contributor on that other forum with "Dutch courage" is interesting - a phrase that puts together two things/people that are deemed incompatible by the speaker, hence the (hidden) insult. (The Dutch have no courage, so they need alcohol to build up their courage - hence 'Dutch courage'.)

    In that case, and regardless of romantic interpretations of the phrase one might come up with, "a gypsy's warning" (as an expression, and I am not referring to the reality of the warning and its intrinsic value...) would indeed be "an insincere word of advice aimed at cheating or confusing the person it is addressed to". In other words, it is not a genuine warning but a misleading warning, perhaps even a veiled threat.

    English is full of ethnically charged phrases and verbs that imply that certain ethnic groups are unreliable and treacherous. See "to welsh on" (to fail to honour), and, I believe, "to jew" (to cheat). For obvious reasons, most of these phrases are frowned upon and not used today. Use "to welsh on" in that sense in the presence of a Welshman, for instance, and you might end up in a lot of trouble (particularly if he happens to be a rugby player).

    The "gypsy's warning" does not appear to be commonly used and, perhaps because it is ambiguous and/or because Gypsies may not be vocal enough in the defence of their rights and identity, it does not appear to carry such stigma...
  14. granolapark New Member

    USA, English

    I came to this discussion when I did a guick online search on the phrase "gypsy's warning" as found in the following lyric of a song recorded in 1941 by George Formby, "The Barmaid at the Rose and Crown"

    "In town there is a little pub which gives much satisfaction
    The men don't go there for the beer: the barmaid's the attraction.
    Her age is, oh well, quite all that ,and more on Monday morning.
    She knows her onions. Take my word, she's heard the gypsy's warning"

    Further searching shows that "The Gypsy's Warning" is the title and subject of another tune, which, according to an article by Lyle Lofgren originally published in "Inside Bluegrass" March 2003, was a popular "parlor tune" first appearing in sheet music form in 1864. The lyrics tell a story of a gypsy's warning to a young maid, telling her that her beau is a cad who wooed and won another young lady, but then "he heeded not her weeping, nor cared he her life to save. Soon she perishished: . . ."

    The gypsy lady refuses payment for this warning that the cad will likely "win" her as well, then leave her a ruined woman, revealing in the last verse that she is the mother of the dead girl, and this is her revenge against the villain.

    This was a well known song, apparently. As Lofgren writes: "The song must have been very popular. Proving once again that nothing exceeds like excess, it generated at least 4 responses using the same meter, and presumably to be sung to the same tune. There were the Lady's Answer to the Gypsy's Warning, where the lady responds to the gypsy; the Answer to the Gypsy's Warning, where the scoundrel says he's really a sensitive guy who daily brings flowers to the gypsy's daughter's grave; the Decision in the Gypsy's Warning, where the lady decides to heed the gypsy advice and get rid of the rotter; and, finally, Trust Him Not, where the lady tells her mother about the whole thing"

    I found a bluegrass version of this song recorded in 1952 online, and an account of its performance in 1975 which indicates that the song (and presumably the phrase "The Gypsy's Warning"" remained in at least some parts of English-speaking culture for over a century.

    I think a case could be made from this information that the phrase "The Gypsy's Warning" derives from this song, which apparently was highly popular and well known, and which could have easily have been the origin of the catch-phrase "The Gypsy's Warning." If this is the case, it is not an ethnic slur (though certanly based on an ethnic stereotype). The meaning of the phrase, if this is the correct derivation, is a warning to women or innocents that they are being lied to and will be taken advantage of if they do not heed the warning.

    This would make sense in the context of the satirical George Formby lyric.
  15. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    This is very interesting information that you have unearthed. One year on, I have re-read some of the Thread and the consensus view was that "a gypsy's warning" is indeed a misleading and/or threatening warning that aims to confuse the other person, associated with anti-gypsy prejudice.

    The song(s) you quote could be the origin, or the phrase could pre-date the songs and the songs may merely have built on the phrase, or one interpretation of it: it is always difficult to tell which came first. But you may be right, and the initial song could be the source of the idiom.

    What I find more puzzling is that the gypsy's warning in the initial song is not of a negative or hostile nature at all, which is to say that it runs counter to the general interpretation of the phrase that seems to be accepted by most contributors.

    Is it that song in question used an existing phrase wrongly, or tried to shift the meaning? Or is it that ethnic prejudice (against gypsies) would have re-interpreted the phrase, once it was in the public domain, assuming it stemmed from the song?

    I am not competent to answer these questions.
  16. granolapark New Member

    USA, English
    I'm also not competent to answer those questions - and good ones they are.

    I noted the negative connotations in the respondant's interpretations, but I also noted that they seemed subjective. There there no examples or sources cited. I'd be interested in seeing such.

    It might be that the meaning "shifted" as you say, perhaps because of general prejudice against Roma (Gypsies).

    I'm wondering if the original meaning was lost because people didn't remember the song, so people hearing the phrase attached meaning to it based on their own prejudices, OR made the assumption that it had a negative meaning because the people of past times who coined the phrased were prejudiced against Roma.

    This is all 100% supposition, of course.

    Btw, we don't have this phrase in the US to my knowledge - though the song seems to have survived here as a bluegrass tune well into the 20th century.
  17. panjandrum

    panjandrum Occasional Moderator

    Belfast, Ireland
    English-Ireland (top end)
    It's the small hand in the air from the back of the class, again.
    It would make sense to me if the original meaning had been much more neutral - at least as far as the gipsy is concerned. But a warning is a warning when all's said and done. No one likes to hear a warning.

    Perhaps some of the doominess of the warning has transferred to the gipsy. Perhaps it's a combination of that and anti-gipsy prejudice. Such prejudice would not have been so prevalent in my part of the world where those with unusual talents were more appreciated than perhaps they were in other places.
  18. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    This is interesting on more levels than one. The 1st point is that anti-Gypsy prejudice is undeniably common, even today, across Europe. I believe it to be strong in Central & Eastern Europe (Slovakia, Romania...), and I know this for a fact. I believe it to be rife in France, England (cf. bad image of "travellers", even if "travellers" and the Roma people are not the same thing), and Spain ("gitano" is almost an insult in Spain, outside the context of art/music). Anti-Gypsy prejudice is, from what I know, a fact. (No need to dwell on Nazi Germany's attempt at exterminating the Roma people, alongside the Jews.) In this respect, Ireland does appear to be different, but it is a moot point whether there are any "real" Roma people in Ireland - in the ethnic sense, as opposed to the "lifestyle" sense.

    As for the phrase, there is a negative interpretation and a positive interpretation. The negative one is that the Gypsy's warning is a false, misleading warning, integrating a curse and/or a threat. The negative meaning is of course linked to anti-Roma prejudice (according to which, roughly speaking, Gypsies would be liars, cheats, and thieves). The warning would be deemed dangerous and worthless simply because the person uttering it is perceived to be dangerous and worthless.

    But the positive interpretation dwells on the alleged abilities of Gypsies to read into the future. There is probably an element of foklore and prejudice here, whereby your typical Gypsy is the old woman reading her crystal ball in a shed and telling you what the future holds for you, etc. In this sense, the Gypsy's warning is given special virtues, since the Gypsy has special powers, those of a clairvoyant. Rather than a simple warning, the Gypsy's warning becomes an insight into what the (real) future holds for you. (Incidentally, you ignore it at your peril - hence we are back to the implicitly negative connotations even here...)

    I have re-read the Thread carefully and I must admit that, contrary to my conclusion(s) at the time, most contributors (probably about 75%) do not describe the warning as potentially bad or negative. Quite the contrary, they stress the powers of divination of the Gypsy, hence the value of the warning. They say that such a warning is of an emotional nature rather than a rational one - gut-feelings that you ignore at your peril.

    In conclusion, the jury is still out on this one and it is remarkably blurred. But this is what is ambiguous about the phrase itself and the role assigned the Gypsy himself (or herself). Whichever way we interpret the phrase, it still assigns a specific role to the Gypsy (good or bad) - a role that is not a million miles away from cliché. When Gypsies can be thought of as computer engineers or policemen, as opposed to flamenco dancers, beggars, or fortune-tellers - that is when prejudice will have died in this department.
  19. swbhoy New Member

    English - Scottish
    I'm finding this all very interesting but most of it differs substantially from the common usage that I'm familiar with.
    Its an expression that I've heard reasonably frequently from older members of my family and as far as I can see alludes more to the "gypsy" reputation for secrecy than for prophecy or deception.
    A gypsy's warning, in the context that I'm used to hearing, refers to a "nod and a wink" style warning. A warning given by someone who has overheard or who has indirectly or covertly come about information pertinent to the person being warned.
    For example then; Colleague A warns Colleague B that they had overheard the manager's secretary discussing that Colleague B was having his performance monitored. Colleague A could be said to have delivered a "gypsy's warning".
  20. mplsray Senior Member

    The Oxford English Dictionary, under the entry "gipsy, gypsy, n." defines gipsy warning as "a cryptic or sinister warning." In other words, it is a fixed expression which doesn't necessarily have anything to do with any actual Gypsy (Romany). Nevertheless, I would advise avoiding the expression.

    Addition: The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English: A-I, by Eric Partridge, Tom Dalzell, and Terry Victor, gives the following definition for "gipsy's warning, gipsy's": "1 a sinister warning, a final warning, a warning of immediate reprisal UK, 1918" It adds the label "Negative stereotyping." The example given shows both the gypsy's warning version, and a shortened version, gypsy's, with the same meaning. (And yes, curiously the headword spells them only with an i while the example spells them only with a y.

    The second definition given is as UK rhyming slang for "morning."
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2010
  21. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    There are undeniably different aspects to the expression, which does carry some (negative) stereotyping of Gypsies, I believe: secrecy, prophecy, and/or deception.

    I understand what you say, SWBHOY, but, on the other hand, the meaning of a slightly "sinister warning", based on veiled threats and/or some form of prophecy and/or some form of deception - this meaning does seem well established, as illustrated by the quotes from the OED etc.
  22. Andygc

    Andygc Senior Member

    British English
    I like it when somebody resurrects an interesting thread I have not seen before.

    I use this phrase. In my work I occasionally see people whose habits are beginning to have detectable health effects - for example, smokers who are beginning to have measurably impaired lung function. I explain to them the almost inevitable consequences of continuing to smoke - at worst shortness of breath and an oxygen cylinder at the bedside. If I discuss that with a colleague at another time I usually say "I gave him the gypsy's warning about his smoking".

    It certainly has a negative connotation.
  23. James Brandon

    James Brandon Senior Member

    Greater London (UK)
    English + French - UK
    So, it is the idea of a dark warning full of foreboding or menace - here in a good cause, as I understand, but a bit threatening all the same.

Share This Page