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Q From Annlasa: I would like to know how the word bohemian came to mean someone or some idea that is offbeat.

A It comes to us through French, in which language the word (as bohémien) has long been applied to gypsies, who were thought to come from Bohemia, or at least to have entered Europe through that country. This is just the same way our gypsies were so named, because they were thought to have come from Egypt (gypsy being a corrupted form of Egyptian). In the nineteenth century, the word shifted sense in French to mean somebody who was a vagabond, or a person of irregular life and habits, an obvious enough extension of meaning if you accepted the then common disparaging view of gypsies. This sense was introduced into English by Thackeray in Vanity Fair in 1848: “She was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and circumstances”. The word quickly came to be applied with special reference to an artist, writer or actor who despised conventionality. By 1862, the Westminster Review was able to say that “The term ‘Bohemian’ has come to be very commonly accepted in our day as the description of a certain kind of literary gipsey, no matter in what language he speaks, or what city he inhabits ... A Bohemian is simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art”. Our modern senses are based on that idea.

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
Page created 19 Jun. 1999

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The English language is forever changing. New words appear; old ones fall out of use or alter their meanings. World Wide Words tries to record at least a part of this shifting wordscape by featuring new words, word histories, words in the news, and the curiosities of native English speech.

World Wide Words is copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.
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Last modified: 19 June 1999.