In the slang of the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, "boffins" are scientists, engineers, and other people who are stereotypically seen as engaged in technical or scientific research. The word conjures up an image of men in thick spectacles and white lab coats, obsessively working with complicated apparatus. Portrayals of boffins emphasize both their eccentric genius and their naive ineptitude in social interaction. They are, in that respect, closer to the "absent-minded professor" stereotype than to the classic mad scientist. Alec Guinness's character in the film "The Man in the White Suit" (1951) is a classic example of an eccentric and obsessed boffin.


The origins and etymology of "boffin" are obscure. It has been variously proposed that:

*the word comes from a name of a restaurant in East Anglia. From 1938 and during World War II the British scientists developing radar frequented an eatery called 'Boffin's'.

*like 'sigint' (signals intelligence), it was a 6-character term popularized during WWII derived from 'back office intelligence', indicating the origins of a particular item of information.

*it is an alteration of "puffin", a bird that is both serious and comical at the same time.

*it was a word for older naval officers (over age thirty-two; see C. Graves "Life Line" 1941) who apparently were termed "Boffins" in the Royal Navy.

*it was inspired by the Heath Robinson-esque appearance of the Blackburn Baffin aircraft of 1932.

*it was derived from Nicodemus Boffin, a fictional character who appears in "Our Mutual Friend" by Charles Dickens, a dustman who is described there as a "very odd looking old fellow." This theory was proposed by linguist Eric Partridge.

One solution that combines all these theories would be as follows: the use of "Boffin" by Dickens found its way into naval slang. The Baffin plane, being a naval torpedo craft, perhaps took its variant name from the same naval tradition. The café on the coast at East Anglia took its name from the naval tradition. Then, to counteract spies the term "boffins" was taken from naval slang at the outbreak of war in 1939, and became widely applied as a convenient euphemism for research scientists.

Usage during and after World War II

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. Widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, in order 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 was popularized during the war by Nigel Balchin's novel "The Small Back Room", which featured a boffin as its hero. [] . The word, and the image of the boffin-hero, were further spread after 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 labored in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. Over time, however, as Britain's high-technology enterprises were eclipsed by their American counterparts, the mystique of the boffin gradually faded. Boffins were relegated, in popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q, the fussy armorer-inventor in the James Bond films. The term itself gradually took on a negative connotation, similar to the American slang "geek" or "nerd."

The word has made a few other appearances in literature. There is a family of hobbits with the surname Boffin in the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, and William Morris has a man called Boffin meet the newly-arrived time traveler in his novel "News from Nowhere."

Usage in modern popular culture

The pejorative connotation was reinforced by the rising anti-intellectualism of the postwar era. This was especially so among children, where it came to mean nerdy young "teacher's pets" at school, lapping up their school work while also often pursuing their own research interests. Boffin was usually shortened to 'boff'. Similar nicknames beginning with 'b' were 'brains' and 'Bamber' (after the chairman of the "University Challenge" TV quiz game). Since around 1990 the term is still used among children, but is increasingly giving way to the U.S.-inspired label of "nerd".

Sympathetic (if mildly comic) portrayals of boffins remained part of popular culture, however. The mid-1960s TV series Thunderbirds featured a classic boffin in a supporting role, and Q has made a ritualistic appearance in virtually every James Bond film released to date. The 1971 UK children's TV series "Bright's Boffins" featured the adventures of an eccentric scientist, Bertram Bright, and his team of equally-eccentric fellow inventors. [] [] . The type was also portrayed in 1970s TV series such as "The Goodies" and "The Double Deckers" (the character of 'Brain').

In modern British English, the word is mainly used in a semi-amusing way, especially by the British Red Top (tabloid) newspapers who frequently, almost universally, use the word when referring to any scientist; e.g.:

Boffins strain for answers - BOFFINS are launching a £660,000 study into constipation, it was announced today.
The Sun, 25 September 2005.

The British technology news site The Register frequently uses the term boffin, especially when referring to robotics engineers. Longman, a British publisher of educational books, uses a character named "Professor Boffin" in many of its books. The character is a stereotypical absent-minded elder scientist. "The Boffins" is a team name used in Worms: Open Warfare. The CPU team are known to be strategic while in gameplay.

Today, particularly in other Commonwealth countries, the term "boffin" is more of a compliment than a pejorative. The term is applied in schools to people who are generally very good in subjects like science, mathematics, and computer studies -- sometimes even to other subjects, like history. The word has found little favour in North America, however, where the corresponding pejorative terms are "geek" and "nerd", and no colloquial term for "scientist" exists.

British Comics David Mitchell and Robert Webb's Big Talk comedy sketch on That Mitchell and Webb Look features host Raymond Terrific (Webb) shouting at his panel of "boffins," demanding they solve the world's problems.

See also

* Mad scientist

Further reading

* 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" (2004)

External links

* [ "Boffin"] : World Wide Words entry by Michael Quinion
* [ "Memoirs of a Boffin" by J. Rennie Whitehead]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • Boffin — ist der Name folgender Personen: Danny Boffin (* 1965), belgischer Fußballnationalspieler Pierre Boffin (1907–1992), deutsch französischer Maler Ruud Boffin (* 1987), belgischer Fußballtorhüter Diese Seite ist eine …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • boffin — of fin n. a scientist or technician, especially one engaged in military research. [British slang] [WordNet 1.5] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • boffin — (n.) person engaged in innovative research, especially in aviation, 1945; earlier elderly naval officer (1941), probably from one of the Mr. Boffins of English literature (e.g. Our Mutual Friend ) …   Etymology dictionary

  • boffin — ► NOUN informal, chiefly Brit. ▪ a scientist. DERIVATIVES boffiny adjective. ORIGIN of unknown origin …   English terms dictionary

  • boffin — [bäf′in] n. [< ?] [Brit. Slang] a research scientist …   English World dictionary

  • Boffin — Cette page d’homonymie répertorie les différents sujets et articles partageant un même nom. Boffin est un nom de famille notamment porté par : (ordre alphabétique) Danny Boffin (1965 ), footballeur belge ; Ruud Boffin (1987 ),… …   Wikipédia en Français

  • boffin — [[t]bɒ̱fɪn[/t]] boffins 1) N COUNT A boffin is a scientist, especially one who is doing research. [BRIT, INFORMAL] The boffins of Imperial College in London think they may have found a solution. Syn: egg head 2) N COUNT Very clever people are… …   English dictionary

  • boffin — UK [ˈbɒfɪn] / US [ˈbɑfɪn] noun [countable] Word forms boffin : singular boffin plural boffins British informal someone who is very intelligent and knows a lot about a particular subject computer boffins …   English dictionary

  • boffin — bof|fin [ˈbɔfın US ˈba: ] n BrE informal 1.) a scientist 2.) someone who is very clever ▪ He was always a bit of a boffin, even at school. ▪ computer boffins …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • boffin — noun (C) BrE 1 old fashioned a scientist 2 informal someone who is very clever but not fashionable: He was always a bit of a boffin, even at school …   Longman dictionary of contemporary English

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