In the slang
Slang is the use of informal words and expressions that are not considered standard in the speaker's language or dialect but are considered more acceptable when used socially. Slang is often to be found in areas of the lexicon that refer to things considered taboo...

 of the United Kingdom
British slang
British slang is English language slang used in the UK. Slang is informal language sometimes peculiar to a particular social class or group and its use in Britain dates back to before the 16th century...

, boffins are scientists, medical doctors, engineers, and other people engaged in technical or scientific research.


Originally, the word was armed-forces slang for a technician or research scientist. The origins and etymology of boffin are otherwise obscure. It has been variously proposed that:
  • The word comes from a name of a restaurant in East Anglia
    East Anglia
    East Anglia is a traditional name for a region of eastern England, named after an ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom, the Kingdom of the East Angles. The Angles took their name from their homeland Angeln, in northern Germany. East Anglia initially consisted of Norfolk and Suffolk, but upon the marriage of...

    . From 1938 and during World War II, the British scientists developing radar
    Radar is an object-detection system which uses radio waves to determine the range, altitude, direction, or speed of objects. It can be used to detect aircraft, ships, spacecraft, guided missiles, motor vehicles, weather formations, and terrain. The radar dish or antenna transmits pulses of radio...

     frequented an eatery called Boffin's.
  • Like sigint (signals intelligence), it was a six-character term popularized during WWII derived from "back office intelligence", indicating the origins of a particular item of information.
  • It is an alteration of puffin
    Puffins are any of three small species of auk in the bird genus Fratercula with a brightly coloured beak during the breeding season. These are pelagic seabirds that feed primarily by diving in the water. They breed in large colonies on coastal cliffs or offshore islands, nesting in crevices among...

    , a bird that is both serious and comical at the same time.
  • It was a word for older naval officers (over age thirty-two; see C. Graves, Life Line, 1941) who apparently were termed Boffins in the Royal Navy.
  • It was inspired by the Heath Robinson-esque appearance of the Blackburn Baffin
    Blackburn Baffin
    -See also:-External links:* *

     aircraft of 1932.
  • It was derived from Nicodemus Boffin, a fictional character who appears in Our Mutual Friend
    Our Mutual Friend
    Our Mutual Friend is the last novel completed by Charles Dickens and is one of his most sophisticated works, combining psychological insight with social analysis. It centres on, in the words of critic J. Hillis Miller, "money, money, money, and what money can make of life" but is also about human...

    by Charles Dickens
    Charles Dickens
    Charles John Huffam Dickens was an English novelist, generally considered the greatest of the Victorian period. Dickens enjoyed a wider popularity and fame than had any previous author during his lifetime, and he remains popular, having been responsible for some of English literature's most iconic...

    , a dustman who is described there as a "very odd looking old fellow." This theory was proposed by linguist Eric Partridge
    Eric Partridge
    Eric Honeywood Partridge was a New Zealand/British lexicographer of the English language, particularly of its slang. His writing career was interrupted only by his service in the Army Education Corps and the RAF correspondence department during World War II...


The word also made a few other appearances in literature prior to World War II. J.R.R. Tolkien used Boffin as a surname for the Boffin family
Boffin family
----In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, the Boffin family are a prominent hobbit family of the Shire, associated with the region of the Yale in the Eastfarthing...

 in The Hobbit
The Hobbit
The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, better known by its abbreviated title The Hobbit, is a fantasy novel and children's book by J. R. R. Tolkien. It was published on 21 September 1937 to wide critical acclaim, being nominated for the Carnegie Medal and awarded a prize from the New York Herald...

(1937) and Sergeant Boffin in Mr. Bliss
Mr. Bliss
Mr. Bliss is a children's picture book by J. R. R. Tolkien, published posthumously in book form in 1982. One of Tolkien's least-known short works, it tells the story of Mr. Bliss and his first ride in his new motor-car...

(written circa 1932). William Morris
William Morris
William Morris 24 March 18343 October 1896 was an English textile designer, artist, writer, and socialist associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the English Arts and Crafts Movement...

 has a man called Boffin meet the newly-arrived time traveler in his novel News from Nowhere
News from Nowhere
News from Nowhere is a classic work combining utopian socialism and soft science fiction written by the artist, designer and socialist pioneer William Morris...


Usage 1940 – present

During World War II, boffin was applied with some affection to scientists and engineers working on new military technologies. It was particularly associated with the members of the team that worked on radar at Bawdsey Research Station
Telecommunications Research Establishment
The Telecommunications Research Establishment was the main United Kingdom research and development organization for radio navigation, radar, infra-red detection for heat seeking missiles, and related work for the Royal Air Force during World War II and the years that followed. The name was...

 under Sir Robert Watson-Watt
Robert Watson-Watt
Sir Robert Alexander Watson-Watt, KCB, FRS, FRAeS is considered by many to be the "inventor of radar". Development of radar, initially nameless, was first started elsewhere but greatly expanded on 1 September 1936 when Watson-Watt became...

, but also with computer scientists like Alan Turing
Alan Turing
Alan Mathison Turing, OBE, FRS , was an English mathematician, logician, cryptanalyst, and computer scientist. He was highly influential in the development of computer science, providing a formalisation of the concepts of "algorithm" and "computation" with the Turing machine, which played a...

, aeronautical engineers like Barnes Wallis
Barnes Wallis
Sir Barnes Neville Wallis, CBE FRS, RDI, FRAeS , was an English scientist, engineer and inventor. He is best known for inventing the bouncing bomb used by the RAF in Operation Chastise to attack the dams of the Ruhr Valley during World War II...

, and their associates. Widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, in order to confuse eavesdroppers or spies.

The Oxford English Dictionary quotes use in The Times in September 1945:
The word, and the image of the boffin-hero, were further spread by Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute
Nevil Shute Norway was a popular British-Australian novelist and a successful aeronautical engineer. He used his full name in his engineering career, and 'Nevil Shute' as his pen name, in order to protect his engineering career from any potential negative publicity in connection with his novels.-...

's novel No Highway
No Highway
No Highway is a 1948 novel by Nevil Shute. It later formed the basis of the 1951 film No Highway in the Sky. The novel contains many of the ingredients that made Shute popular as a novelist, and, like several other of Shute's later novels, includes an element of the supernatural.Nevil Shute...

(1948), Paul Brickhill
Paul Brickhill
Paul Chester Jerome Brickhill was an Australian writer, whose World War II books were turned into popular movies.-Biography:...

's non-fiction book The Dambusters
The Dam Busters (book)
The Dam Busters is a 1951 book by Paul Brickhill about Royal Air Force Squadron 617, originally commanded by Wing Commander Guy Gibson V.C. during World War II...

(1951) and Shute's autobiography Slide Rule
Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer
Slide Rule: Autobiography of an Engineer is the partial autobiography of the British novelist Nevil Shute. It was first published in 1954. Slide Rule concentrates on Nevil Shute's work in aerospace, ending in 1938 when he left the industry....

(1954). Films of The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room
The Small Back Room is a film by the British producer-writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger starring David Farrar and Kathleen Byron and featuring Jack Hawkins and Cyril Cusack. It was based on the novel of the same name by Nigel Balchin...

(1948), No Highway (1951, as No Highway in the Sky
No Highway in the Sky
No Highway in the Sky is a 1951 British disaster film directed by Henry Koster and starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich...

), and The Dambusters
The Dam Busters (film)
The Dam Busters is a 1955 British Second World War war film starring Michael Redgrave and Richard Todd and directed by Michael Anderson. The film recreates the true story of Operation Chastise when in 1943 the RAF's 617 Squadron attacked the Möhne, Eder and Sorpe dams in Germany with Wallis's...

(1954) also featured boffins as heroes, as did stand-alone films such as The Man in the White Suit
The Man in the White Suit
The Man In The White Suit is a 1951 satirical comedy film made by Ealing Studios. It starred Alec Guinness, Joan Greenwood, and Cecil Parker, and was directed by Alexander Mackendrick. It followed a common Ealing Studios theme of the "common man" against the Establishment...

(1951) and The Sound Barrier (1952).

Boffin continued, in this immediate postwar period, to carry its wartime connotations: a modern-day wizard who laboured in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. Over time, however, as Britain's high-technology enterprises became less dominant, the mystique of the boffin gradually faded, and by the 1980s Boffins were relegated, in UK popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q
Q (James Bond)
Q is a fictional character in the James Bond novels and films. Q , like M, is a job title rather than a name. He is the head of Q Branch , the fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service...

, the fussy armourer-inventor in the James Bond films and the term itself gradually took on a slightly negative connotation, broadly similar to the American slang geek
The word geek is a slang term, with different meanings ranging from "a computer expert or enthusiast" to "a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts", with a general pejorative meaning of "a peculiar or otherwise dislikable person, esp[ecially] one who is perceived to...

or nerd
Nerd is a derogatory slang term for an intelligent but socially awkward and obsessive person who spends time on unpopular or obscure pursuits, to the exclusion of more mainstream activities. Nerds are considered to be awkward, shy, and unattractive...


In the Commonwealth outside the UK, the word is much less commonly used - and relatively few Americans will have heard it at all unless via UK sources such as Doctor Who
Doctor Who
Doctor Who is a British science fiction television programme produced by the BBC. The programme depicts the adventures of a time-travelling humanoid alien known as the Doctor who explores the universe in a sentient time machine called the TARDIS that flies through time and space, whose exterior...

 or BBC World
BBC World
BBC World News is the BBC's international news and current affairs television channel. It has the largest audience of any BBC channel in the world...


Further reading

  • Christopher Frayling, Mad, Bad And Dangerous?: The Scientist and the Cinema (2005)
  • George Drower, Boats, Boffins and Bowlines: The Stories of Sailing Inventors and Innovations, The History Press (2011)

External links

Online dictionary definitions
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