Antedating of "boffin"

Laurence Horn laurence.horn at YALE.EDU
Thu Jun 12 13:51:11 UTC 2014

It might be a bit confusing, given the range of meanings.  OED takes us from sense 2:

2. A person engaged in ‘back-room’ scientific or technical research.The term seems to have been first applied by members of the Royal Air Force to scientists working on radar.

to sense 3:

Brit. colloq. In weakened use: an intellectual, an academic, a clever person; an expert in a particular field; esp. such a person perceived as lacking practical or social skills.

The extended sense seems more like "geek" or "nerd" than "scientist".  And the OED refuses to even speculate about the origin.


On Jun 12, 2014, at 9:11 AM, Geoffrey Steven Nathan wrote:

> Our local independent classical radio station (WRCJ-FM, to it now) has a couple of long-time classical DJ's. One of them frequently refers to the technical people behind the scenes as 'back-room boffins'.
> I'm not sure whether it's one more instance of the recent British re-invasion (cf 'one-off', 'agreed [without 'upon'], and other instances discussed here) or whether it's left over from immediately post-WWII.
> Actually, I'm meeting with him next week--if I remember, I'll ask him.
> Geoff
> Geoffrey S. Nathan
> Faculty Liaison, C&IT
> and Professor, Linguistics Program
> +1 (313) 577-1259 (C&IT)
> Nobody at Wayne State will EVER ask you for your password. Never send it to anyone in an email, no matter how authentic the email looks.
> ----- Original Message -----
>> From: "Hugo" <hugovk at GMAIL.COM>
>> Sent: Thursday, June 12, 2014 8:35:18 AM
>> Subject: Antedating of "boffin"
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header
>> -----------------------
>> Sender: American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster: Hugo <hugovk at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject: Antedating of "boffin"
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> The Register, a British tabloid tech website, is fond of using the
>> word
>> "boffin" for scientists, and recently received a complaint from a
>> boffin
>> after neglecting to call him a boffin.
>> They're now after a definition.
>> Anyway, the OED has this sense of boffin from 1945 but I found a
>> 1943.
>> They note: "The term seems to have been first applied by members of
>> the
>> Royal Air Force to scientists working on radar."
>> Their first two quotations (1945, 1948) mention Malvern and
>> Farnborough,
>> both RAF locations. Their third (1948) mentions the RAF. This 1943 is
>> also
>> an RAF use.
>> Journal of the Institute of Petroleum, Volume 28, March 1942, page
>> 58,
>> recording the speeches of a luncheon: "A Luncheon of the
>> Parliamentary and
>> Scientific Committee was held at the Savoy Hotel, London, on Tuesday,
>> 3rd
>> February, 1942", Sir Henry Tizard's speech beginning:
>> [Begin]
>> Looking at things as a whole, no one can deny that the influence of
>> science
>> is now greater than it has ever been, and that the present Government
>> and
>> Parliament attach a value to the help and guidance of scientists that
>> no
>> previous Parliaments have ever done. Lord Hankey has already told you
>> something of the work of the Scientific Committees over which he
>> presides.
>> There are many more such Committees that I could mention. There is
>> hardly a
>> phase of the national life now with which scientists are not
>> associated. In
>> fact, a fighting friend of mine said that he could hardly walk in any
>> direction in this war without tumbling over a scientist who had got
>> in the
>> way. In the Royal Air Force, where the concentration of scientists is
>> perhaps greatest, they have a pet name for them. They call them "
>> Boffins." Why, I do not know. I said to a young friend 6f mine in the
>> Air
>> Force, " Why do you call scientists ' Boffins ' ?" He said, " I don't
>> know.
>> What else would you call them ? "
>> [End]
>> Full-text PDF:
>> Not full view but searchable:
>> Hugo
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society -
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