A Boarder in the Golden Land

By Philologos

Published January 12, 2007, issue of January 12, 2007.
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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.

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