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Though a Bohemian is a native of Bohemia, now a Czech province, a secondary meaning for 'Bohemian' emerged in 19th century France. The term was used to describe a group of artists, writers, and disenchanted people of all sorts who wished to live a non-traditional lifestyle. The term reflects the French perception since the 15th century that the gypsies had come from Bohemia. Literary 'bohemians' were associated in the French imagination with roving gypsies, outsiders apart from conventional society and untroubled by its disapproval, perhaps also a connotation of being the bearers of arcane enlightenment (the opposite of 'Philistines') and perhaps silently accused too of being careless of personal hygiene. Henri Murger's collection of short stories, Scènes de la Vie de Bohème ('Scenes of Bohemian Life'), published in 1845, popularized the term in France. Ideas from Murger's collection formed the theme of Giacomo Puccini's opera La Bohème (1896). In English, 'bohemian' in this sense was first popularized in William Makepeace Thackeray's novel, Vanity Fair, published in 1848.

The term has become associated with various artistic communities and is used as a generalized adjective describing such people, environs, or situations: "bohemian" is defined in The American College Dictionary as "a person with artistic or intellectual tendencies, who lives and acts with no regard for conventional rules of behavior."

Conventional Americans often associate 'bohemians' with drugs and self-induced poverty, but, overall, many of the most talented European and American literary figures of the last century and a half have had a bohemian cast, so that a List of bohemians would be tediously long. Even a bourgeois writer like Honoré de Balzac approved of Bohemia, although most bourgeois did not. In fact, the two groups were often cited as opposites. David Brooks's book "Bobos in Paradise" describes the history of this clash and the modern melding of bohemia and the bourgeoisie into a new educated upper class -- "Bourgeois bohemians", abbreviated to "Bobos".

"Bohemia" was a place where you could live and work cheaply, and behave unconventionally; a community of free souls far beyond the pale of respectable society. Bohemia flourished in many cities in the 19th and early 20th century: in Schwabing in Munich, Germany, Montmartre and Montparnasse in Paris, France, Greenwich Village in New York City, North Beach and later Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco, America and in Chelsea, Fitzrovia and Soho in London, England.

"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." (Westminster Review, 1862, noted at [1])