A Boarder in the Golden Land

By Philologos

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
  • Print
  • Share Share

It’s sad but enlightening to see a nice theory shot down. Two of you have done this with my speculation that British “boydem,” in the slang sense of “police,” might have come, via the Cockney speech of Jewish-immigrant London, from Yiddish boydem, meaning “attic.” One letter comes from David Samson, who writes that he was brought up in Whitechapel, London’s equivalent of New York City’s Lower East Side, and never heard the word “boydem.” The police, he says, were always referred to as “bogeys” or “rozzers.”

But the clincher comes from David Garth:

“I grew up in East London and never heard the word ‘boydem’ before. If it’s in Canadian hip hop and in the U.K., it’s probably more likely of Jamaican origin — a version of ‘the boy them coming,’ meaning, ‘the boys are coming.’ If the cops are ‘the boys,’ then ‘boy dem’ is a way of saying this in Jamaican patois. Some cursory online research confirms this, as in ‘man dem,’ ‘gyal dem,’ etc.”

I went to the Internet’s “Urban Dictionary” and found there that, in Jamaican English, “man dem” is indeed a term for a male friend, and that “gyal [girl] dem” means the same for a woman. Although Mr. Garth may be incorrect in thinking that “dem” functions here as a predicate verb (more likely, it is a post-positioned demonstrative pronoun), he is undoubtedly right about “boydem” having nothing to do, as I suggested it did, with the Yiddish expression boydem mit politsa.

Forward reader Manus Gass inquires: “What is the derivation of the Yiddish word nikhter, meaning ‘sober’?”

Nikhter is one of those Yiddish words with which some non-Yiddish speakers are also familiar, from such Yiddish songs as “Geyt a Goy in Shenkl Arayn” (“When a Goy Goes to the Tavern”), with its two contrasting refrains: Oy, shiker iz a goy, shiker iz a goy, shiker iz er, trinken muz er, vayl er iz a goy (“Oy, drunken is a goy, drunken is a goy, a goy is drunk, he has to drink because he is a goy”), and Oy, nikhter iz a yid, nikhter iz a yid, nikhter iz er, davnen muz er, vayl er iz a yid (“Oy, sober is a Jew, sober is a Jew, a Jew is sober, he has to pray because he is a Jew”).

Nikhter comes from German nüchtern, which means sober, too, as well as being on an empty stomach or not having eaten or drunk. And where does nüchtern come from? My German dictionary derives it from Latin nocturnus, “nocturnal,” via Old German nuohturn.

Why should nuohturn have come to mean sober or on an empty stomach? For that, we have to look at Dutch, which also descends from Old German and in which nuchter, besides meaning what it does in modern German, also means not yet having eaten one’s breakfast. This gives us the missing link. To be nuohturn or “nocturnal” must originally have meant to still not have broken one’s overnight fast or to have break-fasted. From there the word took on the more general meaning of going without food or drink; next of going without drink only, and lastly, of going without alcoholic drink — that is, of being sober. In German and Yiddish, the original sense of nuohturn disappeared; in Dutch, it remained.

Seymour Zimilover wants to know why, in composer and librettist Reuben Doctor’s American Yiddish stage song “Ikh bin a Boarder bay Mayn Vayb,” “I Am a Boarder at My Wife’s,” the English word “boarder” is used in the Yiddish. Doesn’t Yiddish, Mr. Zimilover asks, have its own word for “boarder”?

The common word for a boarder in the Yiddish of Eastern Europe was pansyoner, from French pensionnaire, “lodger” or “boarder,” a pension in French being a boardinghouse. The French-derived Polish words pensjonat, “boardinghouse,” and pensonarz, “boarder,” no doubt influenced Yiddish’s choice of the word, too.

Pansyoner, however, was rarely used in American Yiddish, probably because it sounded too much like “pensioner,” with which it shares the same root. (French pension, from Latin pensus, “something paid,” originally meant a payment, which could refer both to the rent paid by a lodger and to the old-age stipend paid by a government.) Yiddish-speaking American Jews almost always said “boarder.” And in any case, Mr. Doctor’s comic song about a divorced man who moves back into his former apartment is full of American Yiddish Englishisms. Its refrain, for instance, goes (I’ve put the English words in bold letters): “Ikh bin a boarder bay mayn vayb,/Ay gut, ay voyl, ay gut./Mener, iz dos a tayrer dzhab,/Ay gut, ay voyl, ay gut./Zi atendet mikh mit ales/Ven ikh kum fregt zi keyn shayles/Ikh bin a boarder bay mayn vayb.”

In translation this goes: “I am a boarder at my wife’s,/That’s good, that’s great, that’s good./Being a husband is no easy job,/That’s good, that’s great, that’s good./She attends my beck and call/And asks no questions when I come home./I am a boarder at my wife’s.”

“Ikh bin a boarder bay mayn vayb” was first performed on the Yiddish stage in 1922 and revived in the off-Broadway musical “The Golden Land” in 1982. Some of you may know it from there.

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

Find us on Facebook!
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.