words

Boffin
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Other papers were content to call them scientists, but the Sun's story called them boffins. The word was repeated in its headline ("We've Found Life on Mars: Boffins Unearth Fossils in Meteor"), so they must have been pleased with it in Wapping. It may have been an appeal to the younger reader, since boffin had a bit of a revival among schoolkids 15 years or so ago, and is still current among them.

For them, however, a boffin is what their grandparents might have called a swot, which is not what was meant by a boffin when the word was fashionable in the 1940s. Your wartime boffin was no schoolboy, but a scientist attached to one of the Services, where he invented things like radar. It was this kind of boffin that the Sun was talking about, which suggests that it was trying to be up-to-date but getting it slightly wrong.

The two types overlap in popular folklore. Both swots and boffins are believed to be short-sighted and delicately made, and to take an unusual size in hats. It was natural that schoolchildren should get the two mixed, probably on purpose.

No one knows the derivation. Eric Partridge mentions the idea (without necessarily agreeing with it) that the word derives from the eccentric Nicodemus Boffin ("a very odd-looking fellow") in Our Mutual Friend; I'm not sure how much Dickens was being read by the RAF officers when they began using the word in the 1930s.

Later naval officers took it up and meant something different again by it: a naval boffin was an elderly officer. Ronald W Clark in his book about the scientists, The Rise of the Boffins, repeats the legend that a boffin was a cross between a puffin (a ridiculous bird) and a Baffin, an obsolete Fleet Air Arm plane. But if you believe that you'll believe anything.

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