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Scientists speak their brains: Please don’t call us boffins

Quirky Brit idiom, or confusing and gendered term that could deter people from studying the field?

The UK’s Institute of Physics (IOP) is calling on the popular press to ditch the term “boffin” when referring to scientists.

The 150-year-old organization's survey of 1,000 young people and 1,514 adults found using the term “boffin” to refer to scientists was confusing and heavily gendered. It may even put people off studying science as more than 10 times the number of respondents thought the term described a man compared with the number who thought it described a woman.

Commissioned by the IOP and conducted by Censuswide, the survey also found that more than a third of all respondents had never heard of the term “boffin” while 18- to 24-year-olds are nearly 80 percent more likely to view it as an insult than a compliment.

In a statement, Rachel Youngman, the deputy chief executive of the IOP, said: “Words like ‘boffin’, often accompanied by a picture of a man working on their own in a lab, send a message that science in general and physics in particular, is for lone, brilliant, eccentrics rather than being a modern, accessible discipline where working in teams is so important."

The implication was that the pictures of wild-eyed elderly men being run together with the word was the reason behind the association with the male gender.

“‘Boffin’ gets used to describe literally anyone with the slightest technical expertise - the IOP’s own monitoring of the term over the last 12 months has found it used for racing tipsters, political pollsters, dermatologists, astrologers and car designers, as well as physicists, biologists and chemists – it is baffling, clichéd and our excellent journalists can do better.”

She said in UK and Ireland, the formal study of physics struggles to attract girls, those from disadvantaged backgrounds, people of Black Caribbean descent, people with disabilities, and LGBT+ young people into the subject.

“We need to do absolutely everything we can to break down the barriers young people face and the language used by our media can play a really important role in that,” she said.

Not all the British media were receptive to the call, however. The Daily Star — a UK tabloid proclaiming to be the “home of fun stuff” – refused to play ball, saying that “mega-brainiacs have got this one badly wrong” on its front page splash.

El Reg has something of a vested interest here, as an ardent user of the term in knock-about fashion. Although we'd never deny it's a sexist world, in technology as everywhere else, at times we have found the word to be a term of endearment for researchers studying in scientific and engineering fields we love to discuss, and we apply the term to men, women, and non-binary folks, old and young.

Some researchers have even complained when we have failed to refer to them as boffins.

The origin of the term – although this was not cited as a reason for it being gendered in the survey – is uncertain. There is lots of confusion about where it started; some say in Dickens' time, while others claim it originated or WW1 or WW2.

As ever, thrash it out in the comments and give us your considered opinion. ®

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