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The headline in the Sydney Morning Herald last week caught my eye: “Bin Boffin, Says Scientists”, and not only because of the knee-jerk sub-editorial alliterations and the grammatical error.

American readers may be flummoxed by it, since they hardly know the verb to bin in the sense of throwing something away (as into a rubbish bin), let alone boffin, which dictionaries gloss as meaning a person engaged in scientific or technical research. They do know the word boff, however, from an old word meaning to strike a blow, as a slang reference to an act of sex, which makes the headline peculiar, not to say risible.

The article quoted Professor Chris Fell, who is President of the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, a body that represents 60,000 scientists and technologists in that country. His argument was that boffin is in common usage a jaded word that borders on the offensive; the word “conjures up images of weird old men in flapping lab coats, pouring strange chemicals into test tubes”, an image that — understandably — his Federation is not keen to see perpetuated.

When it first appeared, in Britain during World War Two, boffin was a common colloquial reference to the technical experts, the backroom boys, who were helping to win the war. It was an affectionate term, though tinged with the practical fighting man’s scorn for the academic brain worker. It is claimed that the term arose among researchers who were developing radar, but there’s anecdotal evidence that it was around in the Royal Air Force just before the War as a general term for experts on aviation. However, we also know that — confusingly — it is first recorded, in the Royal Navy, for an “elderly” naval officer (one in his thirties or forties).

I’d argue that — in Britain at least — boffin has never quite taken on the highly negative associations that Professor Fell ascribes to it, though it is now more the preserve of older writers and headline writers than a word in common use. But for many young people in Britain, it is indeed derogatory, but for a different reason. When it came into fashion among them some 20 years ago, it took on much the same sense that my generation gave to swot, as a disparaging description of someone good at school work — a person acknowledged to be brainy, but inoffensive and definitely not respected.

All sorts of theories have been put forward for where it came from. Sir Robert Watson-Watt, the British radar pioneer, thought it might be a combination of the word puffin with the Blackburn Baffin, a pre-war British biplane, but this seems very unlikely. Others, such as Eric Partridge, point to literary connections, since a Nicodemus Boffin is a major character, a “very odd-looking old fellow”, in Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend. However, there are other literary connections from that period, since the same surname turns up in The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope, News from Nowhere, by William Morris, and Mrs. Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, among other places. And Boffin is not unknown as a real surname: it’s a variant on the Welsh Baughan.

How it got from any of these names into RAF parlance — if that was the route it took — is a complete mystery. As to stamping it out as a dismissive term for scientists, Professor Fell should know that language goes where it will, unconstrained by positive thinking or earnest exhortations.

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Page created 08 Feb 2003