Is ‘boffin‘ a bad word? That depends on whether you’re a scientist or not. The average researcher would probably cringe if this word was used to describe them. It evokes a rather faded image of a 1950s professor, closeted in his (NOT her) ivory tower, out of touch with the great unwashed.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see that ‘boffin’ is on the Telegraph’s list of banned words, deemed too cliched, offensive or just grammatically unpleasant to be seen in the paper. But never fear. Boffins are alive and well in the pages of The Sun, doing useful thinks like creating e-fit images of Christian Grey, fictional star of Fifty Shades of Grey.
This is a good illustration of why ‘words can never hurt you’ is just plain wrong. Boffin is such a lovely, old-fashioned English word that I’m actually quite fond of it. But at the same time, it’s got all the wrong connotations. It’s often used to snidely hint that scientists are just frittering away their time on strange projects that have no benefits for normal people, or just as shorthand for a clever yet terminally uncool person (I like Wikipedia’s suggestion that it comes from B.O.F. or ‘boring old fart’).
Neither of these associations are particularly welcome to most scientists – or to science communication in general. It might have been flattering for scientists to be considered as a race apart from the rest of us a few decades ago, but these days science, and scientists, are everywhere. Surely it’s time we realised that scientists are people too?
Getting a bit deeper, I think it’s a dangerous word. Scientists are not benevolent, mighty-brained losers. They’re people with flaws just like the rest of us. Flaws like greed, pride, prejudice and sometimes dishonesty.
You’ll still often hear that old chestnut that science is ‘self-correcting’, as if you could pick a scientist at random and find someone with far more honesty and integrity than the average person. Recent evidence of fraud in the field of psychology is just one example that proves how wrong this can be. These days, science is a career – not a calling for men of independent means. There’s money riding on it.
The word ‘boffin’ sets scientists apart from the rest of us, lulling us into a false sense of security. Even if we’re scared of the strange experiments they might be running, ‘boffins’ don’t sound like the type to be looking out for profit and fame at all costs. But the laws of probability (thanks science!) tell us that researchers can’t all be saints.
So on balance I’d be happy never to see the word ‘boffin’ in a newspaper again. Even if you don’t buy my interpretation of the word, surely it’s just lazy writing to reduce any researcher to this shorthand. Banning this out-of-date word could rid the world of one more cliche and take us a tiny step closer to seeing science as it really is.
(Have a look at some real scientists at This is what a scientists looks like)