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shameless pleading


Maybe it’s a form of “baffling.”

Dear Word Detective:  Please tell me the meaning and origin of “boffin.” — Elisabeth McCrea.

Ah, you make it sound so simple.  I suppose I should just put down my snifter of brandy, slowly rise from my chaise-longue, straighten my silk robe, and amble over to the towering bookshelves that line my study.  Then I instruct my assistant to fetch the “B” volume from the top shelf, lift my antique magnifying glass, and we’re on our way.  In reality, however, my assistant is standing by the window, barking furiously at an innocent bird.  Badly distracted by the noise, I have just accidentally deleted a week’s worth of email.  And the only thing at the top of my bookshelves is a demented cat who is apparently planning to leap onto my head just for fun.

Still, one must go on.  “Boffin” is a great word, British slang for a scientific or technical researcher.  “Boffin” is a favorite of the popular press in the UK and Australia, often found in slightly snarky headlines (“Boffin hearts aquiver over pro-science president,” The Australian, 11/12/08).  In popular usage, “boffin” carries a connotation of grudging admiration for a group who, while they probably lack fashion sense and may be socially inept, still hold the keys to our next cool gizmo.  “Boffin” is also sometimes loosely applied to any sort of expert in any field, although the more obscure the field, the more likely you are to be labeled a “boffin.”

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.”

We do know that “boffin” first appeared in print in Britain during World War II, most often applied to the technical experts working to develop radar (although, strangely, at one point it was also Royal Navy slang for an older officer).  There are only a few theories about the roots of “boffin,” and most of them are so unlikely that they are not worth repeating.  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), 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.  Or, since “Boffin” is an actual surname in Britain, it may have been a real Mr. Boffin working on a war-related technical project who is now lost to memory but immortalized in the slang term “boffin.”

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