Word of the Day


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someone who is very intelligent and knows a lot about a particular subject

View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

Origin and usage

The noun boffin is one whose origin has not yet been satisfactorily explained. It seems to have started life as naval slang before being applied in the 1940s to scientists working on radar for the Royal Air Force.


While a few terms, such as ‘polymath‘ and ‘renaissance man‘, seem to be wholly positive in their connotations, many English words and phrases for clever people have snide or even overtly negative overtones. The term boffin conjures up images of scientists in white coats (invariably male), either bald or with wild hair (think of Doc in ‘Back to the Future’) beavering away in their labs on projects no normal person can understand. Boffins, like eggheads are as likely to  be viewed with suspicion as admiration, while terms like smartypants, smart alec, brain box, clever clogs and know-all make it clear what the general opinion is of those who are regarded as too clever by half. Even a seemingly positive term like bright spark is often used in a negative way, to suggest that someone’s clever idea turned out to be not so clever after all.


“He was coming to believe that on the contrary, his boffins might not just have the wrong picture, they might be in the wrong art gallery entirely.”
(Terry Pratchett)

“Using a Greek letter lends the object, being or character a scientific identity. Because so much modern science is beyond the uninitiated, the association is not only with science but also with mystery, something that only true boffin-heads really know and understand.”
(Michael Rosen)

Related words

brain box, egghead, polymath

Browse related words in the Macmillan Thesaurus.

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