A boffin is a stock character in United Kingdom culture: a scientist, engineer, or other person engaged in technical or scientific research. The original World War II conception of war-winning researchers means that the character tends to have a more positive aspect than related characterisations.[1]


Originally, the word was armed-forces slang for a technician or research scientist.[2] The origins and etymology of boffin are otherwise 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 six-character term popularized during WWII derived from "back office intelligence", indicating the origins of a particular item of information.
  • It rhymes with 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.

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 the Boffin family in The Hobbit (1937), and a Sergeant Boffin in appears in Mr. Bliss (written circa 1932). William Morris has a man called Boffin meet the newly-arrived time traveler in his novel News from Nowhere (1890).

Usage 1940 – present

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:[3]

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[4] broadly similar to that of the American slang geek or nerd.[citation needed][dubious ] It is also used in the BBC series Sherlock, to describe Sherlock Holmes in "The Reichenbach Fall".

The word is sometimes used in a derogatory sense between children attending school in the UK, and can often be shortened to "boff" or "bof"; one theory is that the latter is short for "boring old fart".[citation needed]

In the Commonwealth outside the UK, the word is much less commonly used - and relatively few Americans will have heard it at all unless via UK sources such as Doctor Who or BBC World.

It is however still used in some environments; for example, scientists and engineers at Antarctic research bases were still being called boffins in the 1980s.[citation needed]

See also


  1. Such as mad scientist, egghead, nerd, or geek
  2. Chris Roberts, Heavy Words Lightly Thrown: The Reason Behind Rhyme, Thorndike Press,2006 (ISBN 0-7862-8517-6)
  3. "boffin, n.". Oxford English Dictionary (Second 1989; online version September 2011 ed.). September 2011 [1989].  First published in A Supplement to the OED I, 1972.
  4. "Who are you calling a boffin?", 24 September 2010, Jenny Rohn, The Guardian

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, The History Press (2011)

External links

This article uses material from the Wikipedia article Boffin, that was deleted or is being discussed for deletion, which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Author(s): Tamfang Search for "Boffin" on Google
View Wikipedia's deletion log of "Boffin"

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