In the last episode of the BBC Sherlock series, “The Reichenbach Fall,” the viewer sees the newspaper headline “Boffin Sherlock Solves Another.” Sherlock tosses the newspaper aside, saying in disgust, “Boffin Sherlock Holmes.” Watson, meanwhile, sits back with a newspaper with the headline “Stupid Boy.”
A “zzzt” went off in my noggin at the word “boffin,” which I’d seen quite recently. And here it is. The narrator, Maimie, is writing about walking along a street in Oxford with her English companion as they discuss where to go for a bite:
“Shall we go to the Clarendon to get it?” said she, “or to Boffin’s?”
“What is Boffin’s?” I inquired. It is not safe in English localism to assume that you know anything.
“Boffin’s is a pastry-cook’s,” Lady Torquilin informed me, and I immediately elected for Boffin’s. It was something idyllic, in these commonplace days, when Dickens has been so long dead, that Boffin should be a pastry-cook, and that a pastry-cook should be Boffin. Perhaps it struck me especially, because in America he would have been a “confectioner,” with some aesthetic change in the spelling of the original Boffin that I am convinced could not be half so good for business. And we walked up a long, narrow, quiet street, bent like an elbow, lined with low-roofed little shops, devoted chiefly, as I remember them, to the sale of tennis-racquets, old prints, sausages, and gentlemen’s neckties, full of quaint gables, and here and there lapsing into a row of elderly stone houses that had all gone to sleep together by the pavement, leaving their worldly business to the care of the brass-plates on their doors.
-Sara Jeannette Duncan, An American Girl in London, p. 167.
Duncan’s Boffin seems to have no relation to the Sherlock boffin. Nor can I quite make out what her reference to Dickens means, exactly, as Mr and Mrs Boffin are neither bakers nor pastry-cooks. Noddy Boffin and his wife Henrietta in Our Mutual Friend are, through inheritance, the newly rich. Noddy is referred to as the Golden Dustman, because he worked at a waste depot and inherited the owner’s wealth. The Dickens Boffins are genial plotters who contrive to make the true inheritor fall in love with the woman he is legally required to marry in order to inherit.
Conan Doyle’s “The Final Problem” — the story in which Moriarty and Holmes supposedly fall to their deaths over the Reichenbach Falls — was set in 1891 and published in 1893. The BBC reinterpretation was aired in 2012. An American Girl in London was first published in 1891. Our Mutual Friend was begun in the early 1860s, and was published serially from 1864 to 1865.
The shop Boffin’s did exist, according to this website (www.headington.org.uk): “Later in 1861 the well-known Boffin’s Bakery moved here from two doors away at No. 109. It remained at No. 107 for over forty years until it moved again to Carfax in 1907. The 1881 census reveals that the Boffins lived in some style over the shop: the family were away on census night, but their staff were in the house: a housekeeper, housemaid, and kitchenmaid, and two confectioners’ assistants. The advertisement on the left was placed in Alden’s Oxford Guide of 1906.”
But what does boffin mean, exactly, and where does it come from? The online Oxford Dictionary of English defines it as informal English for “a person with knowledge or a skill considered to be complex or arcane.” Sounds like Sherlock all right. The origin of this use is, however, unknown. Some suggest it came from the Second World War, as does the online Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins: “All that is known for sure about boffin is that it originated in the Second World War as naval slang for an older officer. In 1945 there was the first reference to a person engaged in complex scientific or technical research, when The Times wrote of ‘A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves “the boffins”.’ These days a boffin is any person with great skill or knowledge in a difficult or obscure area. But however clever the dictionary boffins are, they still cannot find the origins of the word.” And again: “informal term for a person engaged in scientific or technical research; the word is recorded from the Second World War, and seems to have been first applied by members of the Royal Air Force to scientists working on radar, but the origin is unknown.” (Dictionary of Phrase and Fable online).
So I would like to propose what is already happening in my little brain: Dickens, Duncan, and Sherlock all coming together. The clever fellows from the colleges at Oxford went to eat at Boffin’s, and there, like Mr and Mrs Boffin, they talked of setting the world to rights. Scientists, experts in obscure areas, and cake crumbs. If Tolkien and C.S. Lewis could have a name for their little club, why oughtn’t the non-literary types hanging out at the shop in Oxford call themselves boffins?