A boffin is a research scientist. But boffins are generally thought of in a particular and complex way.

A boffin probably wears a white coat and has wild, unmanageable hair. He (boffins are stereotypically male) is impossibly clever but has few social skills among nontechnical folk; he probably spends most of his time in the laboratory. He is highly educated but has few interests outside his subject.

In spite of boffins’ social inadequacies, they, unlike other scientists, are fundamentally decent. A scientist may be evil — planning to take over the world and cackling demoniacally.

A headline such as “Toffee harmful, say scientists” would be far from sure to bring home the message that toffee really is all that harmful.

Boffins, however, don’t waste their time making such pronouncements: Their job is to invent technologies that will save the human race from inconvenience or disaster.

“Cure for cancer soon, say boffins” or “Boffins invent the ultimate toaster” would be more typical boffin-related headlines.

The origins of “boffin” are utterly obscure. But it seems to have been used by the Royal Air Force to refer to the scientists who worked on radar.

Though in their detached, backroom way they were figures of fun, they were respected as well, for the usefulness of their work to the pilots was undeniable. And their modern-day successors have inherited some of their image of benign utility.

Mark Wainwright is a freelance writer living in Cambridge. Got a question about something you’ve seen or heard around the United Kingdom? E-mail us at:

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