A boffin is British slang for a scientist, engineer, or other person engaged in technical or scientific work. The original World War II conception of war-winning researchers means that the character tends to have more positive connotations than related characterisations like egghead, nerd, or geek.
OriginOriginally, the word was armed-forces slang for a technician or research scientist. In the 12 January 1953 issue of Life magazine, a short article on Malcolm Compston depicts him testing "the Admiralty's new plastic survival suit" in the Arctic Ocean; the article, entitled "Cold Bath for a Boffin", defines the term for its American audience as "civilian scientist working with the British Navy" and notes that his potentially life-saving work demonstrates "why the term 'boffin', which first began as a sailor's expression of joking contempt, has become instead one of affectionate admiration."
During World War II, boffin was applied with some affection to scientists and engineers working on new military technologies. It was particularly associated with the members of the team that worked on radar at Bawdsey Research Station under Sir Robert Watson-Watt, but also with computer scientists like Alan Turing, aeronautical engineers like Barnes Wallis, and their associates. Widespread usage may have been encouraged by the common wartime practice of using substitutes for critical words in war-related conversation, in order to confuse eavesdroppers or spies.
The Oxford English Dictionary quotes use in The Times in September 1945:
Nevil Shute's novel No Highway (1948), Paul Brickhill's non-fiction book The Dambusters (1951) and Shute's autobiography Slide Rule (1954). Films of The Small Back Room (1948), No Highway (1951, as No Highway in the Sky), and The Dambusters (1954) also featured boffins as heroes, as did stand-alone films such as The Man in the White Suit (1951) and The Sound Barrier (1952).1945 Times 15 Sept. 5/4 A band of scientific men who performed their wartime wonders at Malvern and apparently called themselves "the boffins".
Boffin continued, in this immediate postwar period, to carry its wartime connotations: a modern-day wizard who labours in secret to create incomprehensible devices of great power. Over time, however, as Britain's high-technology enterprises became less dominant, the mystique of the boffin gradually faded, and by the 1980s boffins were relegated, in UK popular culture, to semi-comic supporting characters such as Q, the fussy armourer-inventor in the James Bond films, and the term itself gradually took on a slightly negative connotation.