[Ads-l] It=?Windows-1252?Q?=92s_a_bird=3B_It=92s_a_plane=3B_It=92s_?=a boffin

Stephen Goranson goranson at DUKE.EDU
Fri Mar 18 15:59:12 UTC 2022

[Puffin; Baffin, plane discontinued in 1941;…]
OED has boffin n. as “elderly Naval officer” from 1941 [though it’s 1942 cite I find from 1945 and maybe 1943, author elsewhere given as Edward Horace Crebbin, Royal Navy] and “person engaged in…technical research” from 1945 [though both senses come from air and sea coastal protection and may not be quite distinct?]
M-W has the latter sense from 1942
Green’s Slang adds “[ety. unknown, although according to Robert Watson-Watt (1892–1973), the inventor of radar, the term ‘has something to do with an obsolete type of aircraft called the Baffin, something to do with that odd bird, the Puffin’ (Three Steps to Victory, 1957)]”
Wikipedia has some useful links.
Of course, Boffin is a family name and was used also by Dickens and P. G. Wodehouse, though without evident relevance here.
WP cites: Radar at Sea (1993) 86,  a text it dates as Ap. 1, 1941:
[We] played cards waiting for the weather to deteriorate. At last it did & both ‘boffins’ were so sick that they could only just make it to the set. … [They] turned over to me all the drawings of circuits and layout etc., & wished me luck … They couldn’t get away quick enough! [Sub-Lieutenant Orton, RNVR].
Watson-Watt [aka “archboffin”] wrote the above accounting also earlier, in 1953:
Discover Dec. 1946 [GB]:  PAGE 358 They are brilliant , cranky and downright bigoted ; right at the beginning they are christened ' Boffins ' - a term derived by crossing ' Puffin ' ( a bird with a mournful cry ) with ' Baffin ' ( an obsolete type of R.A.F aircraft )
RAF officer (various ranks) George Philip Chamberlain, assigned to coast protection in early WW II, is sometimes proposed as the coiner. In any case, he was apparently an early adopter.
A self-designation has also been claimed.
Stephen Goranson

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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