Boydem

By Philologos

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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My French Vietnamese friend Sabine Huynh, a poet and professio sraeli, sent me the following e-mail:

“When I told the Israeli friend who came for dinner last week that there was no storage room in our Tel Aviv apartment and that we’ll need to consult with a carpenter to find a solution to this problem, she asked me whether we had a boydem above one of the rooms. I didn’t know what this meant and Dror [Sabin’s husband] explained that a boydem was an attic or crawlspace beneath the ceiling. Then my friend said to herself, with an evasive smile: ‘You put away in the boydem what you no longer wish to see or think about….’ This comment of hers made me wonder: Could boydem be used in a figurative way? I guess that as a poet I liked the idea of the boydem being the house’s subconscious.”

Well, when you go word-rummaging in an attic or a subconscious, you never know what may turn up. And one thing that Googling “boydem” on the Internet did turn up immediately was that besides meaning an attic or crawlspace in Hebrew, it denotes in contemporary British slang, especially among young blacks, a police officer or the police, as in a sentence like (see the Internet’s “Urban Dictionary”): “Man, let’s get out of here, it’s the boydem.” And since a Hebrew word for “attic” and a British word for “police” can’t possibly have anything to do with each other apart from their sound, we now have two words to wonder about instead of one.

Let’s start with the Hebrew one. It comes from Yiddish, in which boydem means an attic, too. Some of you may know the Yiddish song that begins, Oyfn boydem shloft der dakh tsugedekt mit shindelakh — that is, “Above the attic sleeps the roof all bedecked with shingles.” Yiddish boydem comes from German Boden, a cognate of the English word “bottom,” whose basic meaning is earth or soil. Non-German speakers who are familiar with it are most likely to be so from the phrase Blut und Boden, “blood and soil,” which was a staple of Nazi rhetoric, although its origins in German nationalist discourse go at least as far back as the early 20th-century historian Oswald Spengler and his opus “The Decline of the West.”

But in German, too, Boden can mean an attic. How does a word connected to “bottom” and meaning “earth” get to denote the top of a room or house? That’s simple. From “earth,” Boden took on the meaning of “floor,’ and in this meaning it was then fitted to such combinations as Dachboden,”[beneath the] roof floor,” and Waescheboden and Trockenboden, the “washing floor” and “drying floor” underneath the roof where laundry was done and hung out in rainy weather. Eventually, the Dach-, Waesche- and Trocken- dropped away and German was left with plain Boden again, this time signifying an attic, garret or loft.

In Yiddish, boydem has only this meaning and is not used in the sense of earth or soil at all. And it does, in at least one expression, have the “figurative sense” that Sabine asks about, though this is not that of the subconscious, which would seem better suited to a basement. Rather, in the expression s’hot zikh oysgelozt a boydem, literally, “it turned out to be an attic,” but meaning “nothing came of it” or ‘it was all a big crock,” a boydem stands for something worthless, a place in which one dumps what has lost all its value.

There is also another interesting Yiddish idiom with the word boydem in it. I first came across it in a passage in Mendele Mokher Seforim’s comic novel “Dos Kleyne Menshele” (“The Little Man”), in which the narrator is soundly berated by the family cook in a choice example of Yiddish invective that I’ll translate for you:

“You rat, you insolent young whippersnapper! You should be torn to pieces like a herring! You snot-nosed bit of impudence, you stinking soul, you wormy piece of meat!… Everything bad that might happen to the Jews should only land on your head! God Almighty, let the Devil take you to where you can’t even rise for the resurrection of the dead! A young man like you and you’re already all plotkes, loksh, boydem, politsa!”

These last four words stumped me the first time I saw them. A plotke is a crappie or sunfish, a small and edible but not terribly tasty pond fish. A loksh is a noodle. A boydem is… well, a boydem, and a politsa is a shelf. But what does it mean to say to someone, “You’re all crappies, noodles, boydem, shelf?”

It sounds like nonsense — and indeed, it is a kind of nonsense, because plotkes, loksh, boydem, politsa, sometimes abbreviated to loksh, boydem, politsa, and sometimes further abbreviated to boydem mit politsa, “[an] attic with [a] shelf,” is a Yiddish expression for a confusion of things that don’t go together. What the cook is really saying is, “A young man like you and you’re already all discombobulated!”

But here we are in extra innings again. To be continued next week.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.






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