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Boodle bag

Q From Letitia: A friend has promised me a boodle bag of goodies. In context she means an assortment of gifts, but I am sure that is not the usual meaning. I remember hearing about ‘thieves making off with the boodle’, where boodle means loot or stolen goods. I know my friend didn’t steal the stuff, so why the two meanings?

A Boodle has had quite a lot of senses down the years in American English, by no means all of them associated with criminal activity. Boodle bag was once quite well known in much the sense your friend was using, dating at least from the 1920s, though it has rather an old-fashioned sound to it these days.

Boodle comes from the Dutch boedel for possessions, property, or a person’s estate — in the very early days of American settlement it was used exactly as in Dutch, for the possessions of a deceased person. From there, it seems to have branched out in several ways, all based on the idea of a collection of things or people, often in the phrase the whole boodle (the more recent whole kit and caboodle is an elaborated form).

The criminal classes borrowed it — about the beginning of the nineteenth century — for the loot, swag or booty that results from a robbery. Later in the century, it turns up in the sense of counterfeit banknotes. It is also used for money that has been obtained by illicit means such as corruption, especially the graft obtained by office-holders.

Your sense came along about the beginning of the twentieth century, and seems to have been an ironic student usage that returned to the older idea of a group of objects (with an undertone of goodies illicitly obtained or held). Students used it for such things as snack food, sweets, and ice cream, as well as parcels from home containing cake, fruit, even spare clothes.

Boodle bag seems to have been a further elaboration, to refer to the container in which this sort of boodle was held. It could also be used specifically for a small pouch for keeping your money in, often worn around the neck.

An example that connected boodle bag in this sense with the bribery and corruption one appeared in The Nation on 29 August 1935: “In addition, he [Roosevelt] had at his command the biggest boodle-bag of patronage in history, and on top of that he had the blessing of the American people, bestowed in overwhelming fashion at the polls just two months before the session began”.

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Page created 09 Feb 2002