What Did the Boffin Say?

“Did you know that British people call scientists ‘boffins’?” Dad asked.

“That just sounds silly,” I said, laughing. “But I guess it would sound normal if I had always called them boffins!”

We were sitting in the living room and discussing Comet ISON, which flew dangerously close to the sun on Thanksgiving Day. According to the article my dad read, about half of the boffins had said that the comet would burn up as it neared the sun, while the more optimistic boffins had predicted it would survive the encounter. The reality of what happened to Comet ISON is more confusing: The boffins thought that the comet had completely disintegrated at first, but there turned out to be a  fragment of the comet that survived for a couple of days afterward.

According to Oxford Dictionaries, “boffin” is noun, chiefly British, that refers to “a person engaged in scientific or technical research” or “a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex, arcane, and difficult.” The term’s origins are unknown.

“Boffin” first appeared in British presses during World War II, usually referring to the scientists and technicians that were trying to break codes and develop radar. Yet, no one seems to know where the word originated. My fellow word sleuth over at The Word Detective tackled the term’s puzzling etymology:

Unfortunately, the origin of the term “boffin” is a mystery.  Our only consolation is that it is considered a very big mystery by etymologists.  In fact, “boffin” was included on a list published in American Speech (the journal of the American Dialect Society) back in 1981 of words with particularly mysterious origins (“Etymology Unknown: Toward a Master List of Words of Obscure Origin”), a list that also included such puzzlers as “malarkey” and “moolah.”

According to The Word Detective, one leading theory suggests that the origin of the word is literary:

 The late British etymologist Eric Partridge pointed out that Charles Dickens, in his novel Our Mutual Friend (1865), describes his character Mr. Boffin as “a very odd-looking old fellow indeed,” and William Morris, in his News from Nowhere (1891), has his own Mr. Boffin, described as a “dustman” (trash collector) interested in mathematics.  It’s possible that either of these characters inspired the term.

The uncertainty about “boffin” extends to its appropriateness in today’s society. Some scientists find the term offensive. Others wear it as a badge of honor (or shall I say “honour”?). An article from The Guardian called “Do scientists mind being called boffins?” suggests that the term encourages negative stereotyping, recalling the image of the wild-haired, socially inept, bespectacled scientist. Although some from the scientific community are trying to “reclaim” the term, it seems to be used derogatorily in the media, particularly in the British and Australian tabloids.

The term “boffin” seems quaint to my American ears, but apparently it has some negative connotations. For, now I think I’ll just stick with the neutral “scientists.” After all, if I said “boffin,” no one in Midwestern America would know what I was talking about, anyway.

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