Portrait of George Borrow

Romano Lavo-Lil

For a great deal of his life George Borrow had been associated with Gypsies, and in particular with the English Gypsy dialect language of Romany.

In January 1838 George Borrow had published Embéo E Majaró Lucas, a translation of the gospel of St. Luke into Caló, the language of the Spanish Gypsies.  This was the world’s first book written entirely in a Gypsy language.

In April 1841 George Borrow published The Zincali, or, An Account of the Gypsies of Spain, a major study of Gypsies, including a large vocabulary of the Romany language.

When his most popular work, The Bible in Spain, was published in 1843, containing much gypsy material and adventures, George Borrow became known far as wide as a gypsy specialist.  His following works expanded on his gypsy associations and experience, with Lavengro (a gypsy term meaning “word-master”) in 1851, and the sequel The Romany Rye (a gypsy term meaning “gypsy gentleman”) in 1857.

George Borrow’s works inspired a new generation of gypsy students and by 1870, when George Borrow had been more of less forgotten, William Knapp, a missionary in Spain (and subsequently the biographer of George Borrow), got the British and Foreign Bible Society to approach George Borrow to update his translation of St. Luke in Caló.  George Borrow, no doubt feeling himself the acknowledged master of gypsy-matters, again took up his gypsy interests, as far as publishing went.

On 24 October 1870, an up-and-coming American gypsy expert, Charles Geoffrey Leland, contacted George Borrow:

“Dear Sir,—During the eighteen months that I have been in England, my efforts to find some mutual friend who would introduce me to you have been quite in vain ... As you never published a book which I have not read through five times—excepting the Bible in Spain and Wild Wales, which I have only read once—you will perfectly understand why I should be so desirous of meeting you

source: Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, p. 228

George Borrow responded and the two met in 1871.  It was then that George Borrow found that Charles Leland was planning to publish a book on the English Gypsies, and he also found that Charles Leland was already fairly competent in gypsy studies.  George Borrow was determined that if any book was to be published on English gypsies, it should be written by George Borrow.  Borrow now worked to scrape together his manuscript notes and writings into a coherent form, in order to publish before Charles Leland’s book appeared.

Charles Leland The English Gypsies appeared in at the end of 1873, and was acknowledged as a major advance in the subject.

Borrow’s book, Romano Lavo-lil (gypsy word book) came out in March 1874, but was widely seen as out of date, and greatly overtaken by the newer generation of gypsy scholars.  In particular George Borrow’s vocabulary of gypsy words was hopelessly incomplete, not even containing all the gypsy words George Borrow had printed in his previous works.  Where George Borrow had attempted etymologies of the words, these were ridiculed by the younger generation.

The first edition was of 1,000 copies, and by 1880 John Murray (the publisher), still had more than 500 unsold copies.  George Borrow died in 1881, and it wasn’t until 1905 that a second printing occurred.

The George Borrow Bulletin has noted Romano Lavo-Lil on a number of occasions: 4, 17; 18, 8; 22, 81; 29, 15.

source: George Borrow, A Bibliographic Study, pp. 79–84.

source: The Life, Writings and Correspondence of George Borrow, Vol. 2, pp. 234–246.