In British slang, a boffin is a scientist, engineer, or other person engaged in technical or scientific work. The original World War II conception of war-winning researchers means that the term tends to have more positive connotations than related terms like spod, egghead, nerd, or geek.
Originally, the word was armed-forces slang for a technician or research scientist. In the 12 January 1953 issue of Life magazine, a short article on Malcolm Compston depicts him testing "the Admiralty's new plastic survival suit" in the Arctic Ocean; the article, entitled "Cold Bath for a Boffin", defines the term for its American audience as "civilian scientist working with the British Navy" and notes that his potentially life-saving work demonstrates "why the term 'boffin', which first began as a sailor's expression of joking contempt, has become instead one of affectionate admiration."
The origins and etymology of boffin are otherwise obscure. Linguist Eric Partridge proposed the term derived from Nicodemus Boffin, a character who appears in the novel Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, who is described there as a "very odd-looking old fellow indeed". In the novel, Mr Boffin pursues a late-life education, employing Silas Wegg to teach him to read.
The word also made a few other appearances in literature prior to World War II. J.R.R. Tolkien used Boffin as a surname for a hobbit family in The Hobbit (1937), and a Sergeant Boffin appears in Mr. Bliss (written circa 1932). William Morris has a man called Boffin meet the newly arrived time traveller in his novel News from Nowhere (1890).
Usage 1940 – present
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During World War II, boffin was applied with some affection to scientists and engineers working on new military technologies. It was particularly associated with the members of the team that worked on radar at Bawdsey Research Station under Sir Robert Watson-Watt, but also with computer scientists like Alan Turing, aeronautical engineers like Barnes Wallis and their associates, and the scientists of the Department of Miscellaneous Weapons Development. Widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, to confuse eavesdroppers or spies.
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes use in The Times in September 1945:
1945 Times 15 Sept. 5/4 A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves "the boffins".
The word, and the image of the boffin-hero, were further spread by Nevil Shute's novel No Highway (1948), Paul Brickhill's non-fiction book The Dambusters (1951) and Shute's autobiography Slide Rule (1954). Films of The Small Back Room (1948), No Highway (1951, as No Highway in the Sky), and The Dambusters (1954) also featured boffins as heroes, as did stand-alone films such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Sound Barrier (1952).
Boffin continued, in this immediate postwar period, to carry its wartime connotations: a modern-day wizard who labours in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. Over time, however, as Britain's high-technology enterprises became less dominant, the mystique of the boffin gradually faded, and by the 1980s boffins were relegated, in UK popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q, the fussy armourer-inventor in the James Bond films, and the term itself gradually took on a slightly negative connotation.
- Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press, 2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
- "Cold Bath for a Boffin". Life (volume 34, no. 2). Time Inc. 12 January 1953. p. 96. ISSN 0024-3019. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
- Morris, Evan (June 2009). "Boffin – Maybe it's a form of "baffling"". word-detective.com. Retrieved 19 December 2012.
The most intriguing lead (and to me the most probable source) 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 [sic]), has his own Mr. Boffin, described as a "dustman" (trash collector) interested in mathematics.
- Dickens, Charles (reissued 2008). Our Mutual Friend. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-19-953625-2. Check date values in:
- "boffin, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (Second 1989; online version September 2011 ed.). September 2011 . First published in A Supplement to the OED I, 1972.
- "Who are you calling a boffin?", 24 September 2010, Jenny Rohn, The Guardian
- Francis Spufford, Backroom Boys: The Secret Return of the British Boffin, Faber and Faber, London (2003), ISBN 0-571-21497-5
- Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (2005)
- George Drower, Boats, Boffins and Bowlines: The Stories of Sailing Inventors and Innovations, The History Press (2011)
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