“Boffin”

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.

15 responses to ““Boffin”

  1. Re. “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.'”

    Yes, one can’t help noticing how close it comes to sounding like “buffoon.”

    • Whereas these terms – certainly “buffoon” – are somewhat pejorative, “boffin” tends to be used affectionately. Think of James Bond’s relationship with “Q” in the numerous Ian Fleming novels and associated films.

  2. Curiously, I’ve just been reading an American book that used the word “boffin” – Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold. American author, American publisher, it’s science fiction set in the distant future on a planet colonised from Earth. She uses a number of other Anglicisms including “loo”, presumably to emphasis a slightly Ruritanian setting. However, she uses “pissed” to mean annoyed, whereas here in the UK, if you’re pissed it means you’re drunk.

  3. Boffin is a bit more ‘official’ than ‘nerd’ – much closer to ‘egg-head’. You might say ‘the boffins at the government research institute’, or say that someone who was a recognised expert in something was a boffin. Recent school slang has shortened this to ‘boff’ – ‘she’s a boff’ meaning she’s expert in a subject – I think it doesn’t quite have the derogatory tone of calling someone a swot.

  4. Of course boffing means something else entirely.

  5. As well as Peter’s (last above) meaning–as in ‘boffing’ someone–there’s also ‘boffing’ (vomiting), which leads to ‘boff’ (vomit) and, by association, institutional food: “brown boff” stew/curry, “green boff” for over-cooked vegetables, etc. From there it’s moved to general use as a generic word for liquid/runny food: “anyone for more boff?” (heard as recently as just last night from my host at supper; it was curry).

    Quote: “…often in a manner that is synonymous with “nerd” or “egghead.”

    I think ‘nerd’ or ‘egghead’ are slightly less kind than ‘boffin’. A boffin tends to have unfathomable knowledge, it’s not a derogatory term.

    • I’ve never heard these usages of boff as a term for food. Might this be an anglicised version of the French word “la bouffe” – from the verb bouffer?

  6. A recent Grauniad article on this topic has generated much online discussion:

    http://tinyurl.com/p495dnp

  7. I’d say the main difference between ‘boffin’ and ‘nerd’ is one of age. The word ‘nerd’ suggests a young person who, if he sticks with it, may grow up into a fully-fledged boffin (and incidentally, it is always a ‘he’).

  8. Ben:
    As much as I detest both “egghead” and “nerd,”
    Dismissive, unkind, whenever they’re heard,
    This side of the pond, I simply can’t soften
    To call men of science, something like boffin.
    owaD”S MUCH

  9. Given that the archetypal boffin is a scientist designing bouncing bombs or cracking Nazi codes in WW2 movies I always assumed it came from ‘back office’ or perhaps ‘back office intelligence’ – and ‘backroom boys’ is another term used to describe the boffins.

    As to current English usage it is not quite so archaic as you’d think given that I’ve heard teenagers use it to describe nerdy classmates.

  10. I concur with Catherine Rose’s comments above about “boffin” being shortened to “boff” by school children. I attended a grammar school (where entrants were selected on academic ability) and the pupils from other schools regularly declared us to be “boffs”, usually as a taunt when pupils from various schools met at bus stops (this was in the early 1980s). Personally, at least, I take “boffin” to be a term of fondness for distant but clever people who are thought to be doing good, and “boff” which is a school boy insult!

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