Boffins wa-hey!

So what is the difference between a Boffin and a Wonk?

Is it merely that “wonk” is a USAnism and “boffin” is a Britishism? Or is it to do with scholarly rigor – wonks are fascinated but waffle (or at least speculate), whereas boffins are fascinated but rigorously demonstrate?

I happen to believe that both Boffins and Wonks have their place in evaluating policy, but just wish that more people would make the distinction between what both have to offer.



Categories: culture wars, Politics

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7 replies

  1. The difference for me is, I’ve heard of wonks but not of boffins. (Which goes to your first point.) I’m hard-pressed to say which one I prefer saying repeatedly. And now I want to write a children’s book with a character named something like “Arabella Boffinwonk.”
    In any case, I agree, it’s a terribly important distinction to make. I mean, now that I know “boffins” exist.

  2. Boffin to me is a scientist (on the phys/astronomy/chem/bio spectrum), not a political or social scientist.

  3. I didn’t realise that boffin was used for policy types too.
    I thought boffin had that scholarly meaning, but had died out bar with those of us amused by using it in mock retro pop culture. I’m very pleased to hear that it’s alive and well.

  4. I’m very pleased to hear that it’s alive and well.

    That may be a stretch, outfox. It wouldn’t be the first time that I have fallen prey to wishful thinking, and certainly Lauredhel has a point about its historical association with the “hard” sciences, I just think “boffins” might have a place in opinionated discourse generally in distinguishing between rigor and speculation, that’s all.

  5. Besides, ‘boffin’ is simply a wonderfully cromulent word.

  6. A boffin is a scientist/inventor who works in a back room. Boffins invent or discover things, but they will never manufacture or market: they just don’t have the necessary social skills or the desire to develop them. There are genius boffins and boffins who are merely good. There are very few poor boffins, because nobody will employ them and give them enough of a budget to interest them. Boffin is a job: when you retire, you’re just an expert until you lose touch with current developments.
    A wonk is someone who knows a particular subject extremely well, but it’s not a job. Richard Branson is a Steam Train wonk; David Salo is a Tolkien language wonk. It doesn’t mean they work in that field, it means they know a lot about it and love doing stuff associated with it. Someone could be a _The Simpsons_ wonk, or a Fender Stratocaster wonk. Political parties tend to attract specialist policy wonks who know everything about a particular subject: if you want to know what effects a particular reform will have you can be told “Go check it out with Alex: she’s our Housing wonk.”. This not only means ‘expert’, it means that she’s always trying to convince people that Housing is the key to economic growth, and that Housing policy can win the next election if the candidates would just bring it up more in interviews.
    Often, especially in scientists, the two are combined. For instance, the world expert in, say cryotechnology, is probably both a boffin and a wonk. But one doesn’t imply the other.
    Simon. (the guy you know who signs himself that way)

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