The word "piker" is sometimes used in the United States, but a piker in Australia and New Zealand is someone who refuses to do something within a group. It is not well received among Irish Travellers or Romas, as it is considered an ethnic slur.
There is some evidence to suggest that forms of the term existed in medieval literature. In Robert Henryson's Fable Collection (late 15th century), in the fable of the Two Mice, the thieving mice are referred to on more than one occasion as 'pykeris':
'And in the samin thay went, but mair abaid, Withoutin fyre or candill birnand bricht For commonly sic pykeris luffis not lycht.'
The term is strongly associated with itinerant life and constant travel: pikey is directly derived from pike which, c. 1520, meant to "go away from, to go on" and related to the words turnpike (toll-road) and pike-man (toll-collector).
19th century and 20th century
The Oxford English Dictionary traced the earliest use of "pikey" to The Times in August 1838, which referred to strangers who had come to the Isle of Sheppey as "pikey-men". In 1847, J. O. Halliwell in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words recorded the use of "pikey" to mean a gypsy. In 1887, W. D. Parish and W. F. Shaw in the Dictionary of Kentish Dialect recorded the use of the word to mean "a turnpike traveller; a vagabond; and so generally a low fellow".
Its Kentish usage became more widespread, as it was also used to include all of the travelling groups who came to the county as "pickers" in the summertime of fruit and hops.
Hotten's dictionary of slang gives pike at as go away and Pikey as a tramp or a Gypsy. He continues a pikey-cart is, in various parts of the country, one of those habitable vehicles suggestive of country life. Possibly the term has some reference to those who continually use the pike or turnpike road.
The connotation and linkage of gypsies to petty theft, crime and general low socioeconomic activities is well-entrenched.
More recently, pikey was applied to Irish Travellers (also known as tinkers and knackers) and non-Romanichal travellers. In the late 20th century, it came to be used to describe "a lower-class person, regarded as coarse or disreputable."
Pikey's most common contemporary use is not as a term for the Romani ethnic group, but as a catch-all phrase to refer to people, of any ethnic group, who travel around with no fixed abode.
Among English Romani Gypsies the term pikey refers to a Traveller that is not Romani. It may also refer to a member who has been cast out of the family. If a member of the family is hot-headed or a thief or a troublemaker or brings misfortune on the family, then a family council will be held and that member will be cast out of the family and will have to stay out of the way for ever more. They are regarded as never having even been a part of the family.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the definition became even looser and is sometimes used to refer to a wide section of the (generally urban) underclass of the country (in England generally known as chavs), or merely a person of any social class who "lives on the cheap" such as a bohemian. Following complaints from Travellers’ groups about racism, when the term was used by presenter Jeremy Clarkson as a pun for Pike’s Peak in the television programme Top Gear, the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust ruled that, in this instance, the term merely meant “cheap”.
In 2003 the Firle Bonfire Society burned an effigy of a family of gypsies inside a caravan after travellers damaged local land. The number plate on the caravan read P1KEY. A storm of protests and accusations of racism rapidly followed. Twelve members of the society were arrested but the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence to proceed on a charge of 'incitement to racial hatred'.
The Oxford History of English notes that:
"young people who use charver or pikey to identify a contemporary style of dress or general demeanour suggest an aimless "street" lifestyle, unaware of the Romani origin of the first or of connotation with "gypsy" of the second.
Pikey, formed from turnpike roads, as along with pikee and piker been used in the South East [of England] especially since the mid-19th-century to refer to itinerant people of all kinds and been used by travelling people to refer to those of low caste. Scally a corresponding label originating in the North West of England was taken up by the media and several websites, only to be superseded by chav. A very recent survey has unearthed 127 synonyms, with ned favoured in Scotland, charver in North East England and pikey across the South [of England].
'Ned' is particularly a West of Scotland usage and likely derives from the diminutive for the name Edward. The current usage dates from the 1930s, but the Oxford English Dictionary refers to its use for 'hooligan' or 'lout' in the 19th century
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It was because there's always someone out there, I feared, who was going to tap me on the shoulder and say "you dear, who do you think you are and where do you get off at, you're a gyspy, you're a pikey
- "New Statesman – Andrew Billen – Common problem". New Statesman. Retrieved 8 November 2009.
Then, a year or so ago, I noticed the words "pikey" and "chav" were being used as synonyms for "common
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- "Top Gear cleared over Pike's Peak pun". BBC News. 17 March 2015..
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- Syal, Rajeev (16 November 2003). "Lay off revellers who blew up gipsy caravan on my land, says viscount". The Daily Telegraph (London).
- "Object to travellers and their illegal camps and run the risk of being called racist". Daily Mail (London). 16 April 2009.
- Carey, Rachel (2007). "Safe Communities Initiative: case studies Contingency Planning in Firle". Commission for Racial Equality. Retrieved 16 July 2009.
- Mugglestone, Lynda, The Oxford history of English, Oxford University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-19-924931-8, page 322.
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