Monthly Archives: March 2023

Boffin-biffing buffoons baffled by beef, before befriending

The Institute of Physics has launched a campaign against using the word “boffin” to refer to scientists and other researchers. They argue that the word conjures up an unhelpful, outdated stereotype that could put young people off science. According to their survey: “When asked to describe what a boffin looks like in three words, respondents painted a clear picture: glasses, geeky, nerdy, male, white coat, serious, bald and posh.”

“Boffin” is one of those odd, slightly dated slang words that don’t much exist outside of UK newspapers. (See Rob Hutton’s book Romps, Tots and Boffins: The Strange Language of News for an insider’s guide to the lexicon of the Great British press.) So the Institute of Physics is in particular asking the big tabloid newspapers to stop using it.

This plea is obviously a red rag to a bull, and the Daily Star has duly (and quite magnificently) charged:

Daily Star headline reading “Boffins: don’t call us boffins”

According to the Star, and I think they mean it, they use “boffin” not just cheekily but affectionately. “We bow to no one in respect of our boffins. But the berks have buggered it up with this Bin the Boffin befuddlement.”

But one argument that might carry a bit more weight than avoiding stereotypes is that the word is – perhaps surprisingly – unclear. The Institute of Physics found:

Over a third of all adults and young people surveyed had never heard of the term before. For those who had heard the word before, there was confusion as to what boffin meant. Suggestions that were put forward of what boffin means included a kind of bird, a type of biscuit, or even a fancy coffin.

So maybe this is a word (for which I confess I have a tongue-half-in-cheek fondness) whose limited niche is going to contract as the generations change.

Its first known use, according to the boffins lexicographers at the OED, was during World War II. It started off meaning an older officer, but it soon shifted to mean “a person engaged in ‘back-room’ scientific or technical research” – perhaps because older officers were more associated with such roles. It was applied in the RAF to scientists working on radar:

Their ages are as youthful as air crews. Thirty-two is considered the maximum… In H.M.S. Wasps’ Nest, anyone aged thirty-two is officially a ‘boffin’. There is even a song about them… ‘He glares at us hard and he scowls, For we’re the Flotilla Boffins.’ (C Graves, 1941)

A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves ‘the boffins’. (Times, 1945)

‘What’s a boffin?’ ‘The man from Farnborough. Everybody calls them boffins. Didn’t you know?’.. ‘Why are they called that?’.. ‘Because they behave like boffins, I suppose.’ (N Shute, 1948)

The origin is, to paraphrase the OED, anyone’s guess. Etymonline suggests that it may have been a reference to a fictional character, perhaps Mr Boffin in Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. I haven’t read it, but I gather he’s a genial but bumbling figure, an illiterate former dustman who unexpectedly inherits money and hires a personal reader to broaden his education. Not quite sure how that would translate into the WWII usage, though. It feels like a private joke among a small group of friends which then caught on, changing as it did.

So what’s the alternative? The physicists suggest “scientist”, or being specific about the relevant specialism. The only problem there is that “scientist” is harder to fit in a headline than “boffin”. The only relevant word I can think of that’s comparably short is “expert”. But that, in UK politics, comes with its own cultural baggage.

Further research is needed! Send for the bo— [gunshot]