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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.”


Take your pick.

Dear Word Detective: The talking heads use the phrase “take on” often, as in “What is your take on this situation?” or “Let’s hear from Susan and her take on what happened.” Any idea where this started and why it’s so prevalent? — Jon King Keisling.

That’s a good question. I know the usage you mean, which has been popularized on TV news discussion shows such as “Hardball.” The phrase “your take on” is used on such shows to mean “your opinion of” or “your understanding of,” as in “So what’s your take on the decision by the Flubber campaign to push voter registration for domestic pets, Andy?”

The problem in pinning down the origin of this usage is that the word “take,” although it has only four letters, has literally dozens of meanings, especially as a verb. Derived from an ancient Germanic root meaning “to touch,” the verb “to take” can mean “to grasp, seize, grip” (to “take prisoners,” for instance) or “to be seized by illness” (“to be taken ill”), “to swindle,” “to capture the attention or affection of” (“I was quite taken by her”), “to show an effect” (“We waited for the antibiotic to take”), “to put something into one’s own hand” or the like (“I took the sword from him”), “to swallow” (“Take two aspirin”), and so on. The Oxford English Dictionary lists more than 94 separate senses and sub-senses of the verb “to take.”

The noun “take” (which “your take on” contains) is a bit less complex than the verb, but still carries ten major senses, including “take” meaning “a section of motion picture film taken at one time” (“Let’s try another take, this time with feeling”) and “take” as “money obtained by theft or fraud” (“We’ll split the take four ways”).

It is possible that the “take” in “your take on” is drawn from the movie use of “take,” with the sense of “version” or “interpretation.” But I think it’s more likely that the “take” we’re looking for is the use, as a noun, of one sense of the verb “to take.”

As a verb, “to take” has, since the 14th century, carried the sense of, to quote the Oxford English Dictionary, “To receive and hold with the intellect; to grasp mentally, apprehend, comprehend, understand.” This is the sense of “take” we use in phrases such as “I take it you’re not coming to the party” or “What kind of idiot do you take me for?” It seems clear that this is the sense of “take” in “your take on,” since it fits nicely with the meaning “to comprehend, to understand.”

Unfortunately, although some dictionaries now acknowledge this use of “take,” they furnish no background on its history. My guess (based on personal memory) is that it probably started as slang in the 1970s and gradually began appearing in the mass media in the 1980s. As for why it has become so widespread, especially on TV news shows, I think that it provides the informality such shows crave. Ask a guest for his or her “interpretation” or “opinion” of a news event, and you’re likely to get a windy dissertation. Ask for “your take,” and you’ve made it clear that what is wanted is a quick impression, not a detailed analysis. It’s the perfect phrase for a genre of “news coverage” that consists largely of snap judgments of sound bites.

Rid up

Get cracking.

Dear Word Detective: My question is about a phrase I heard while growing up in Kansas. After dinner, my Mom would say, “it’s time to rid up the dishes.” Where did this expression come from? — Candy.

Ah yes, doing the dishes. I learned something recently about doing the dishes. Last month [referring to Oct. 2008] Hurricane Ike knocked out our power for the better part of a week, which meant that we had no lights, TV, etc. More importantly, it meant, because we have a well, that we had no water. Naturally, the night before we lost power, we had decided to let the dinner dishes slide. Big mistake. After the second day of the outage, I began to dream about being able to wash dishes.

“Rid up” in the sense that your mother used it, “to tidy up or clear a room, to clean,” is not uncommon in the American Midwest, although it certainly isn’t as popular as it once was. But while “rid” in this sense is now considered a dialectical usage restricted largely to the rural US, it was once standard English and in common use way back in 16th century England (“Take off, boy, rid the table, and bring those fritters,” 1599).

The use of “rid” to mean “clean up” is a specialized sense of the same verb “to rid” we use to mean “to make a person or place free of something annoying, troublesome or dangerous” (“If you put the laws in execution, …you would soon rid the country of these vermin,” Henry Fielding, Tom Jones, 1749). Probably the most common use of “rid” today is in the verbal phrase “to get rid of,” as in “If only Janet would get rid of that doofus Tony, she might meet a nice guy for a change.”

The roots of “rid” lie in Old Norse, but very early in the word’s history in English it became entangled with another word, “redd,” which is a Scots and northern English dialect word also meaning “to clean, tidy up.” Like “rid,” “redd” arrived in the US via immigrants from Great Britain, but “redd” now tends to be heard primarily in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Over time the parallel usage of “rid” and “redd” to both mean “clear out” or “clean up” has led to the two words nearly merging in their definitions, although “rid” in the more general sense of “make something go away” is far more common than “redd.”

As if all that isn’t complicated enough, there are actually two “redds” lurking out there, one derived from a Middle English root meaning “to clear an area” and the other from a different root meaning “to free or rescue.” But in practical usage the meanings of the two overlap so much that they might as well be considered the same word.