La Vie Bohème

In class, the word bohemian was used to describe New Orleans’ red light district, the origin of the venerated Baby Dolls tradition. The word choice felt a little bit off in context of today’s meaning of bohemian, but historically, this has not been the case.

Part of my discomfort with the use of bohemian in that context comes from my experience working at the mall over the summer. When it came to clothes, we had three “trends” for women: sporty, pretty, and boho. So, I spent my entire summer trying to label people’s style as bohemian or one of the other two. In my mind, bohemian became associated with flowy clothes, floral patterns, and musical festivals.

However, my classmate was right to use bohemian in the context of Storyville in New Orleans. Only recently has bohemian come to have the connotations of young 20-somethings going to Coachella, fairy lights and tapestries in dorms, and a certain style of dress.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (I know it is a cliché to quote dictionaries, but bear with me), bohemian means vagabond, wanderer, especially a gypsy, or a person (such as a writer or an artist) living an unconventional life, usually in a colony with others. The labeling of a certain type of clothes as bohemian seems particularly ironic once faced with the dictionary definition, as someone who is unconventional should, by all reason, not want to buy any particular style, especially those labeled boho by a large corporation, but I digress.

Moving on to the etymology of bohemian, I once again find myself faced with Roach’s idea of performance, particularly the conscription of people into roles that they did not sign up for. The word bohemian originally meant someone that comes from the region of Bohemia, located in the present day Czech Republic. Mistakenly, the French thought that the Roma came from that region, possibly because another group was forced to leave their homeland in Bohemia around the same time the Roma first appeared in western Europe.

The Roma, because of their nomadic lifestyle, were conscripted into a sort of performance: the romanticization of their lifestyle while at the same time being persecuted by pretty much all groups in Europe. They were expected to play the happy nomads, the kind you see in any novel involving “g*psies” (which I have censored because it is now considered a slur by the Roma). Because of this romanticization of what is considered an unconventional lifestyle, bohemian came to mean any lifestyle out of the societal norm.

Undoubtedly, this was exacerbated by the French artists in the Latin Quarter of Paris that called themselves bohemian, vividly portrayed in La Bohème by Puccini (on which the musical Rent is based). This definition best fits Storyville. From there, it is easy to see how the word was commercialized and romanticized until it means what it does today.

Through a simple idea offered by Professor McCoy, to write a blog post about the etymology of bohemian, I did not expect to find Roach, but I did. Through geographical and historical errors and the conscripting the Roma into a stereotyped performance, bohemian means what it does today.

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