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'Carmen,' gypsies, bohemians, and 'others'

A performance of 'Carmen' reminds the Monitor’s language columnist how vexed our language for various 'others' is.

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The miracle of global high-definition television brought the acclaimed new Covent Garden production of Bizet's opera "Carmen" to a movie house near me the other day. Voilà, for just a few more shekels than the cost of a first-run flick, I was transformed into an operagoer.

"Carmen" is music I absorbed osmotically growing up around my opera-loving father. But it had been a while since I'd attended a full performance of it – long enough, in fact, that I found myself wondering, "Is it still politically correct to call Carmen a gypsy?"

I've seen the terminology for a number of groups change over the years, sometimes to the point that the human rights organizations and other politically correct types are so far out in front of ordinary readers that the latter lose track of just what group is being talked about. Nowadays the United Nations, for instance, would refer to Carmen and her compatriots as "Roma" or "Sinti." But I remember being baffled, during my student days, by a series of BBC Radio reports on "traveling people." This strikes me in retrospect as a high-water mark of euphemism – hey, with my Eurailpass, wasn't I a traveler, too?


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