Literary Excerpts

What's in a Word? Bohemian

by John Bemelmans Marciano

Joseph Hèmard's illustration from Henry Murger's Scènes de la Vie de Bohème, 1921.

bo•he•mi•an n. One who lives an unproductive life justifiedby art, or the idea of it.

Appropriate to its meaning, the term bohemian entered English through the arts. It first appeared in Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, but the subculture it described was most memorably portrayed in Puccini’s La Bohème, which was ultimately based on a series of stories that were published in France beginning in 1845. Scenes de la bohème depicted life in the 1840s Latin Quarter and was written by Henry Murger, who, unlike the trust-fund poseurs inhabiting present-day bohemias from Williamsburg to Berlin, was an authentically poor, deeply dedicated writer who died before the age of forty. Though the first to use it in print, Murger didn’t coin the term bohème, which was Parisian slang at the time. Bohèmien had long been a synonym for “Gypsy” in French (as was Bohemian in English), stemming from a belief that they had either originated in or at least come through Bohemia, the Czech heartland of which Prague is the capital. Murger and his fellow Latin Quarterites felt a special kinship with Gypsies, who lived a vagabond existence outside of traditional society, despised by a bourgeoisie who saw their ways as a threat to their own and fancied themselves to be the bohèmiens of Paris.

This entry is excerpted from Toponymity: An Atlas of Words, by John Bemelmans Marciano, and is reprinted here with permission.

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