What are they on about?

12th May 2000 at 01:00
David Newnham finds unexpected ramifications to a court case

Of all the issues raised by the case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for killing a burglar, one has so far failed to receive the attention it deserves. I refer, of course, to the question of pikeys.

"Light-fingered pikeys" is how Tony Martin was said to have referred to the intruders who he reckoned were regularly threatening his property. What did he mean?

If he had been referring to people whose ancestors came originally from northern India, arriving in western Europe by the 15th century, he might have used the word "gypsy", as these dark-skinned tribes were once wrongly supposed to have come from Egypt.

He might even have said "didicoi", a Romany word commonly used to refer to gypsies (all too often,"dids" get the blame for acts of vandalism carried out by others).

But the term bandied about in court was "pikeys", which seems to have broader connotations and obscure origins.

According to one dictionary of slang, a pikey is a vagrant or gypsy. Why?

The suggestion is that vagrants tramped the main roads, and in the 18th century these main roads were called urnpikes. They were called turnpikes because they were toll roads, and to ensure that users paid up, rotating barriers made of sharp poles were installed, and the sharp poles were called pikes.

Confusingly, though, another dictionary links "pikey" with "piker". This has the same meaning, but for some reason, its origins are thought to lie with the verb "to pike".

To pike - and, more commonly, to pike off - once meant to go, leave, depart, run away, or generally make oneself scarce. Cockneys would say, "If you don't like it, take a short stick and pike it," and in New Zealand a piker is still somebody who gives up easily.

Were vagrants the sort of people who turned up one day, offered to pave your front drive and then promptly piked off? If so, it may be that "pikey" has nothing at all to do with "turnpikes", as people were piking as early as 1520, two centuries before turnpikes gave their name to toll roads.

One thing's certain. If society has a name for a group of people, the reverse will also be true. To gypsies, all non-gypsies are "gadje". Like didicoi, it's a Romany word, and it means "bumpkin","yokel", or "barbarian". Touche!


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