[Ads-l] More on etymology of "boffin"

Ben Yagoda byagoda at UDEL.EDU
Tue Mar 22 14:52:38 UTC 2022

I don’t believe this has been mentioned before; please forgive me if it has. In a 1953 article (mentioned by Stephen Goranson), Robert Watson-Watt wrote of the etymology of “boffin", “I am sure it has nothing at all to do with that first literary 'Back Room Boy,' the claustrophiliac Colonel Boffin, who as you remember never overtly emerged from his back room, although his voice was clearly audible from it.” (https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=4051258 <https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=4051258>)

In searching for (the non-existent) “Colonel Boffin” on Google Books, I came upon this excerpt from a 1991 book called Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science, by Sidney Ross (https://www.google.com/books/edition/Nineteenth_Century_Attitudes_Men_of_Scie/gc73CAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1 <https://www.google.com/books/edition/Nineteenth_Century_Attitudes_Men_of_Scie/gc73CAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1>):

"While a young man in his twenties, [Thomas Henry] Huxley was assistant surgeon and unofficial naturalist on board H.M.S. Rattlesnake on its survey voyage through Australasian waters, from 1846 to 1850. In his capacity he messed in the gunroom with the midshipmen--boys between the ages of twelve and sixteen. His constant good spirits and fun, when he was not absorbed in his work, and his lack of any assumption of authority over them, made these boys his good comrades and allies. The curiosity natural to their age led to their taking a keen interest in his vocational activities, unusual in a man-of-war. As the Rattlesnake beat across the seas, Huxley trawled for specimens of sea creatures, using an improvised net. The sailors disliked the dirt that his catch made on the deck, which it was their duty to keep clean, and they also blamed his trawling net for slowing the ship's progress. But the boys were fascinated. They took to calling his specimens ‘buffons', their attention having been drawn to the word by the sight of Huxley's copy of Buffon's Natural Hiistory, which, in a series of many volumes, displayed the name repeatedly in large gilt letters on a shelf in the chartroom. After a while even Huxley himself called the specimens his ‘buffons’.
"Having entered Royal Navy slang in this way, the word might quite reasonably have been transferred from the specimen to the specimen collector, and, its origin forgotten, its vowels might equally reasonably have undergone a sea change making ‘boffin' out of 'buffon'. I suppose also that the slang term was confined to the esoteric vocabulary of sailors for a hundred years, until the rise of the boffins in the second world war brought it to the attention of the general public."

Ben Yagoda
www.benyagoda.com <http://www.benyagoda.com/> 
The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list