'Carmen,' gypsies, bohemians, and 'others'

A performance of 'Carmen' reminds the Monitor’s language columnist how vexed our language for various 'others' is.

The miracle of global high-definition television brought the acclaimed new Covent Garden production of Bizet's opera "Carmen" to a movie house near me the other day. Voilà, for just a few more shekels than the cost of a first-run flick, I was transformed into an operagoer.

"Carmen" is music I absorbed osmotically growing up around my opera-loving father. But it had been a while since I'd attended a full performance of it – long enough, in fact, that I found myself wondering, "Is it still politically correct to call Carmen a gypsy?"

I've seen the terminology for a number of groups change over the years, sometimes to the point that the human rights organizations and other politically correct types are so far out in front of ordinary readers that the latter lose track of just what group is being talked about. Nowadays the United Nations, for instance, would refer to Carmen and her compatriots as "Roma" or "Sinti." But I remember being baffled, during my student days, by a series of BBC Radio reports on "traveling people." This strikes me in retrospect as a high-water mark of euphemism – hey, with my Eurailpass, wasn't I a traveler, too?

Our English Gypsy (also spelled "gipsy") goes back to about 1620 and is, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, an "alteration of gypcian, a worn-down Middle English dialectal form of egypcien 'Egyptian,' from the supposed origin of these people." This term has its close counterparts in Spanish, Turkish, and Arabic. Gitane, French for "Gypsy woman," lives on as the name of a racing bicycle and also a brand of cigarettes – perhaps appropriate, given Carmen's employment in the cigarette factory of Seville.

But Bizet, or rather his librettists, Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, working from a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée, had a completely different term for Carmen: Bohémienne. From about the middle of the 16th century, the French had referred to these nomadic people as from "Bohemia," a Central European kingdom now part of the Czech Republic. The French incorrectly believed these wandering people originated in Central Europe.

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the Spanish referred to these people as "Flamencos," from Flanders, a historical region now divided among Belgium, France, and the Netherlands. It also quotes a scholar named Weekley, presumably British philologist Ernest Weekley, as saying, "The gipsies seem doomed to be associated with countries with which they have nothing to do."

In the 19th century, bohemian came to refer to those who live outside the conventions of ordinary society, typically as some sort of artist. This was a usage Thackeray picked up in "Vanity Fair" in 1848.

The Online Etymology Dictionary quotes the Westminster Review from 1862: "A Bohemian is simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art."

The poster children, though, for this sense of "Bohemian," or "bohemian," are the impoverished artists of Puccini's opera "La Bohème," which premièred in 1896 but was set in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s. One might argue that Rudolph, Mimì, and the rest are distinguished more by their poverty than their artistry, but maybe I reveal my status as a non-Bohemian by saying that.

To bring this full circle, I feel I'm looking for a Spanish opera set in Italy. But three different terms for wandering strangers show just how hard it can be to find the right word for "the other."

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