A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Who decided Bohemian = nonconformist?

April 22, 1994

Dear Cecil:

How did "bohemian" come to be applied to artsy, avant garde, progressive lifestyle folks? In rural central Texas, where I grew up, "Bohemian" was a common, nonpejorative term applied to people of Czech origin — decent folk, but more of the hardworking farmer and staid burgher mold than artists and intellectuals. Please enlighten me.

Cecil replies:

This one's easy, but sometimes a man needs a softball question. The term Bohemian originally was applied not just to the farmers and burghers you're talking about but to the gypsies, erroneously thought to have originated in Bohemia. Gypsies were unconventional folk, and while not all unconventional folk were gypsies, William Thackeray felt people would figure it out if he used Bohemian to mean "a person of gypsylike habits" in his 1848 novel Vanity Fair. They did, and the term in that sense has been with us since. Today it generally signifies someone who is not just unconventional but slumming, that is, living below his natural station in life.

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