4 Mar /19


Bohemian/Boho – Word of the day – EVS Translations
Bohemian/Boho – Word of the day – EVS Translations

Today we are looking at the often applied, little understood, and not-quite-Czech word, Bohemian, or, in its shortened form, boho. It has been applied to some of the best known and most skilled “unconventional” talents in the creative fields. Yet, like many of the words, expressions, and idioms that we use on a daily basis without a second thought, we use this term without knowing where it came from or, really, why we use it

Yes, technically, Bohemia is a region in the Czech Republic (actually, several), but, outside of the geographic distinction, there’s a reason why we say someone or something is bohemian/boho and that reason is French.

Dealing with an influx of Roma migrants around the 15th century, the French, due to the first appearance of Roma in Western Europe originating in Bohemia or possibly confusing them with refugee Bohemian Hussite heretics, labelled and began referring to the Roma as bohemién. By the late 17th century, this association had transferred to English, as can be seen in Edward Phillips’ 1696 English dictionary, The New World of Words, referring to Bohemians as “the same with Gypsies, Vagabonds that stroll about the Country.”

As Western Europeans began to understand and interact with these “vagabonds”, they discovered that the Roma lifestyle was, according to proper and dignified Western European standards at the time, unconventional and irregular: after all, artistic work isn’t as methodical and predictable as farming or building. Looking at William Thackeray’s 1848 novel, Vanity Fair, where he states that: “She was of a wild, roving nature, inherited from father and mother, who were both Bohemians, by taste and circumstance”, we can see how this further understanding of the Roma lifestyle has altered the definition of the term while retaining the geographic distinction.

Less than 20 years later, in 1866, looking at Anthony Trollope’s book, The Belton Estate, which mentions that: “The young man commenced Bohemian life in London”, our word finally begins to slip its Czech moorings and apply solely to the free yet unconventional lifestyle.

Writing a term paper titled College Vocabulary in 1958 that was referenced by the journal Midwest Folklore in 1963, Joan Davis can be among the first crediting with shortening the term to the now widely understood boho, defining it in academic terms as: “a nonconformist, usually an Art or Speech and Theater major.”

From specifically identifying people and then to an individual person, the term, utilized in Erich Segal’s novel Love Story, finally began to be an adjective for anything considered to be artistic, fashionable, and unconventional, mentioning of a character: “Her costume..was a bit too Boho for my taste. I especially loathed that Indian thing she carried for a handbag.”

Aside from the general and historical applications of the term, the hardest part of understanding boho is when attempting to apply it. As few of us live a unitary existence within our culture where we eat, think, talk and dress the same, we are, as author Virginia Nicholson recently noted: “in a sense… we are all bohemians”, but each in our own distinct and individualistic way. After all, no real bohemian would attempt to label and classify himself, or anyone else.