My friend Bruce Beans forwarded his “Word-of-the-Day” e-mail from Merriam-Webster. The word was boffin, and M-W defined it as “a scientific expert; especially : one involved in technological research,” then provided this note:
“Boffin” is an informal word that is more common in the U.K. than in the U.S. It is a relative newcomer to the English language, only appearing toward the end of World War II. Despite its youth, however, the origins of “boffin” are a mystery to us. The term was probably first applied by British Royal Air Force members to the scientists and engineers working closely with radar technology. The term was soon being more broadly applied to scientists involved in technological research. British speakers also use “boffin” colloquially to refer to academics or intellectuals in general, often in a manner that is synonymous with “nerd” or “egghead.”
The OED is similarly circumspect on etymology. The editors sniff, “Numerous conjectures have been made about the origin of the word but all lack foundation”; apparently Dickens’ character Mr. Boffin in Our Mutual Friend is not considered worthy of mention. The dictionary does provides these illuminating early citations:
1945 Times 15 Sept. 5/4 A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves ‘the boffins’.
1948 ‘N. Shute’ No Highway iii. 61 ‘What’s a boffin?’ ‘The man from Farnborough. Everybody calls them boffins. Didn’t you know?’.. ‘Why are they called that?’.. ‘Because they behave like boffins, I suppose.’
1948 Ld. Tedder in A. P. Rowe One Story of Radar p. vii, I was fortunate in having considerable dealings in 1938–40 with the ‘Boffins’ (as the Royal Air Force affectionately dubbed the scientists).
The word has been used once on this blog, by a commenter on the kit post:
‘KIT’, from my (UK) service days could be clothing/uniform – “sort your kit out!” – personal equipment – “don’t leave your kit around or it’ll go in the scan bag**” – and bigger things – “..it’s the latest all-singing-all-dancing swept-up bit of kit”. The latter was almost always ironic, usually said just before the wretched thing blew up on launch/crashed, to the merriment of all except attendant boffins.
Clearly, it’s a Britishism. But is it a not one-off Britishism? Well, yes, barely. The New York Times hasn’t used it since 2012, but that year it appeared three times in five months:
- “Using its secret formula (note the sponsorship by Coca-Cola) that will next be assessed by the boffins who discovered the Higgs boson, Spain kept its spot at the top of the heap.” (Soccer story from July 4, 2012)
- “… the World Science Festival, the annual jamboree of science, culture and art that mixes boffins and boldface names.” (May 2012)
- “ Alexander Hoffmann is no white-coated mad scientist, but a ‘quant,’ a computer boffin.” (Book review, March 2012)
And it shows up intermittently in the years before then.
So welcome to the fold, boffin. What you really need now is a proper etymology.