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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.


On the “Struggle Bus”

One day a couple of weeks ago, I woke up, ambled into the bathroom and proceeded to drop my tube of toothpaste into the toilet. I thought my day couldn’t get any worse until I gave a 15-minute class presentation on what turned out to be the wrong movie. (Who knew there were two completely unrelated films named “Chocolat”?) In short, I was on the struggle bus.

I first encountered the term “struggle bus” a month or so ago. Perplexed by Tweets like “I can’t even college right now #strugglebus,” I knew I had fallen behind the ever-changing landscape that is popular culture. Although I could deduce the basic meaning of “struggle bus” from context clues, I wanted more information since I revel in the discovery of new words. So, I turned to the one source that could tell me more: Urban Dictionary.

According to Urban Dictionary, “struggle bus” is a metaphor used to “describe a difficult situation, as in hard schoolwork.” An alternative definition describes it as “the state of doing anything simple and struggling an inordinate amount with it.” Urban Dictionary featured “struggle bus” as the Word of the Day on Oct. 5, 2012.

Google Trends shows that the first time “struggle bus” became a significantly searched term was in January 2010. Throughout the past few years, the term gradually gained popularity, reaching its peak last month, October 2013.

You can even ride the virtual struggle bus. Just type in your life’s struggles and watch the bus crash and burn. It’s strange, sure, but also strangely satisfying.

I once read a book called “Wordwatching” written by Alex Horne. The book documented the author’s vain, ridiculous and delightfully funny quest to invent new words and get them published in the Oxford English Dictionary. As a fellow-word lover, I appreciated Horne’s (largely fruitless) attempt to break into the lexicon. The book heightened my awareness of the new words that pop up in conversation and increased my curiosity in their origins.

I have no idea where the concept of the struggle bus came from, nor does anyone else seem to. Nonetheless, it’s beginning to catch on and become part of everyday conversation. People in my social circle are adopting the term to refer to the annoying, embarrassing, and perplexing moments of their lives.

The rise of the struggle bus seems akin to the “first world problems” trend that refers to the daily frustrations experienced by privileged people of wealthy countries. Both the struggle bus metaphor and the first world problems meme are vehicles for complaints that we’re not quite sure we even have a right to voice.

In any case, being on the struggle bus isn’t necessarily the worst. If you’re struggling, at least it means you’re trying. So, next time you have a bad day, take a seat and ride the struggle bus with the rest of us. We’ll wait patiently until we reach our stop, get off the struggle bus and get on with our lives.