How Did Lowlifes, Hippies, Con-Artists, Artists, Swingers, And Musicians Come To Be Referred To In English As ‘Bohemian’ ?

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So Bohemian

September 5, 2016

Allan Stevo

Watching the beautiful opera from Puccini La Bohème, one is reminded of the word for the western portion of the Czech Republic – Bohemia. One would be right in this association. However, it’s worth noting that this word is the French word for “Gypsy.” How would the French come to refer to Gypsies as “Bohemians” and how would this end up in English as a word for someone living an uncommon lifestyle?

The popular wisdom of Central Europe among the intelligentsia seems to indicate that Gypsies (aka Roma) merely travelled from the Eastern and Central parts of Europe into the West, when asked in the West where they came from, they simply said Bohemia, which may have been a place of birth, but also may have been the place they last set out from before arriving in France. This land was originally named Bohemia after a tribe that settled there.

So Where does the French word la bohème come from? It comes from Roma entering France and saying they came from Bohemia. Roma being more culturally subject to be itinerant were much more likely to be seen on the roads and towns of France than let’s say an established ethnic Czech baker and his family from the Bohemian town of Karlovy Vary. end2

The word was used to refer to people from Bohemia (seen by the outside world as being disproportionately composed of Gypsies) and the way those people lived in caravans, wearing bright colors, travelers, gigolos, travelling salesmen or con artists, traders, thieves – people living at the edges of society. The whole concept of those living an existence at the edges of society with a greater deal of freedom when compared to the middle class or the bourgeoisie or the aristocrats, these people were individually la bohème.

Later this word came into English to describe that same type of existence on the margins of society. Bohemian meaning “a person who has unconventional social habits” entered English borrowing the word for the westernmost region of the present-day Czech Republic, and specifically referencing the unconventional social habits of Gypsies at its root.

Allan Stevo writes on Slovak culture at www.52inSk.com. He is from Chicago and spends most of his time traveling Europe and writing. You can find more of his writing at www.AllanStevo.com. If you enjoyed this post, please use the buttons below to like it on Facebook or to share it with your friends by email. You can sign up for emails on Slovak culture from 52 Weeks in Slovakia by clicking here.

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