Word of the Day


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a large fire built outside for burning waste. People also have bonfires at parties or celebrations.

Origin and usage

Bonfire comes from a Middle English word ‘banefire’, which means a fire for burning bones, ‘bane’ being an old word for ‘bone’. As the name suggests, bonfires were originally used for burning bones, and also on occasion for burning people convicted of heresy as well as prohibited items, including books.


Tom Wolfe’s satirical novel Bonfire of the Vanities deals with life in 1980s New York, but the term originally referred to occasions on which items that were believed to cause sinful behaviour were collected and publicly burned. The most famous of these took place in 15th century Florence under the influence of the Dominican friar Savonarola when his supporters burned sin-inducing objects such as cosmetics, luxury clothing, books and works of art.

These days bonfires have less sinister connotations, being used mainly to burn garden waste, although the practice is increasingly banned by local authorities on the grounds that it causes atmospheric pollution. One time when bonfires are still acceptable is the days around 5 November, Bonfire Night, when fires are lit all over the UK to commemorate the failed attempt in 1605 to blow up the Palace of Westminster while the King and Parliament were inside.


“All night I dreamt of bonfires and burn piles
and ghosts of men, and spirits
behind those birds of flame.”

(Ada Limón)

“The same way that I know that I’ll never do a movie as good or as celebrated as ‘Forrest Gump,’ I know that I’ll never do a movie as bad as ‘Bonfire of the Vanities.'”

(Tom Hanks)



View the full definition in the Macmillan Dictionary.

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Macmillan Dictionary

Macmillan Dictionary

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