We ended last week’s column with the Yiddish expression plotkes, loksh, boydem, politsa, “crappies, noodles, attic, shelf,” or alternately, loksh, boydem, politsa or boydem mit politsa, in the sense of an unrelated hodgepodge, or, as one says in colloquial English, “everything but the kitchen sink.” Why these particular four items were chosen to express the idea of unrelatedness is, I must confess, a mystery; however, they may help solve another mystery that came up last week.
As I observed a week ago, the word “boydem,” curiously, means “police” in British street slang. It also may have crossed the ocean to Canada, because on a Canadian hip-hop site I came across the following indignant description:
“A few weeks before that [a previous incident with the police] a dude was killed in the middle of the f—– day and the boydem didn’t let the medics bring him to the hospital they waited for him to die ass out naked as kids watch him pass as they went home from school.”
Where does this usage, which doesn’t particularly look or sound like an English word, come from? The only suggestion I have been able to find is that it’s an inversion of “dem boys,” but this strikes me as a stab in the dark; why should “dem boys” be a slang reference to the police? And can it be just a coincidence that, at the same time, there exists a Yiddish phrase boydem mit politsa, the last word of which, while meaning “shelf” (from Polish polica), sounds like “police” in both Yiddish (in which police is politsei) and English?
I don’t think so. As far-fetched as it may seem on first glance, I strongly suspect that “boydem” as a slang word for police comes from boydem mit politsa. But how can this have happened?? If it did, the answer must lie in Cockney rhyming slang.
Some of you may know what Cockney rhyming slang is. It’s a form of lower-class London speech, originally thieves’ argot that developed in the 19th century, in which standard English words are replaced, often in two stages, by a phrase or part of a phrase that rhymes with them. In the first stage, the whole rhyming phrase is present, and sometimes it remains that way: Thus, for example, “to believe” in rhyming slang is “to Adam-and-Eve.” Frequently, however, part of the rhyming phrase drops out: Eyes in Cockney slang were originally “mince pies,” which was then shortened to “minces”; beer, once “pig’s ear,” became “pigs”; a suit went from being a “whistle and flute” to a “whistle”; stairs started out as “apples and pears” and ended up as “apples,” and so on. Whole sentences that are entirely incomprehensible to non-Cockney ears can be constructed from such terms — which is precisely what argots are meant to do. If a Londoner says, “I was so elephants at the rub-a-dub that I fell down the apples and landed on me bottle,” what he means is that he was so drunk (“elephant’s trunk”) at the pub (“rub-a-dub-dub”) that he fell down the stairs on his backside (“ass”/”bottle and glass”).
You’ll notice that when a word does drop out of the rhyming phrase, it’s always the word that rhymes. A suit is a “whistle,” not a “flute”; stairs are “apples,” not “pears.” The reason is obvious: If the rhyme stays in, the outsider has a better chance of guessing its meaning. Hearing someone say, “I went up the pears,” you might figure out that he meant stairs. “I went up the apples,” is harder to decode.
Now let’s get back to Yiddish. Although immigrant, Yiddish-speaking Jews rubbed shoulders with Cockneys in many parts of London, particularly the East End, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and contributed a number of Yiddish words to Cockney speech (such as “to shtoom,” to play dumb or keep one’s mouth shut, from Yiddish shtum, “silent” or “speechless”), their influence on rhyming slang was practically nil; the only example of a Jewish rhyming term that I’ve been able to turn up is “flour mixer” for “shiksa.” But the principle of rhyming slang, which is, as we have seen, one of double displacement, in which first a phrase replaces a standard word and then part of the phrase replaces the whole phrase, must have been known to London immigrant Jews — and this principle could have, initially, made boydem mit politsa a Jewish expression for the police and, subsequently, could have eliminated the last two words and left only “boydem.” Such a boydem would indeed have been an “attic” into which, as my friend Sabine Huynh’s dinner guest said, one put what “one no longer wished to see” — or in this case, what one no longer wished others to hear. From there, “boydem” could have been picked up by Cockney speech just as shtum was, and eventually could have passed into black and hip-hop slang.
It’s a nifty theory. The only problem with it is, I have no evidence that “boydem” was ever used by Jews or Cockneys as a word for the police — and without such evidence, a theory is all it ever will be. If there are any ex- or current Londoners out there who can enlighten us on the matter, let’s hear from you.
Questions for Philologos can be sent to email@example.com.