Fraser’s Phrases: British Nerd Slang, ‘Swots And Boffins’

Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, the swot

Forgive me if any of this brings up painful memories from your school years. There’s no way to examine the British slang terms for people who excel in educational facilities without looking at the reasons why they were coined in the first place. And some of those reasons are a little barbed.

So, for the purposes of Nerdist week, let’s pretend this is a kind of anthropological study into our own young lives, when were were all lumpen and unformed, and leave it there.

With that in mind, let’s open our textbooks at chapter 13: ‘Swots and Boffins.’

Swots are the people who pay attention in class, because they want to, and because they are supposed to. They’re the people who get their homework done on a Friday night, leaving the weekend clear for a trip to the library for further reading. They’re also the people who remember when their friend’s birthdays are without looking at Facebook. They use their free time to learn orchestral instruments and always remember to practice. They’re the people who get all of their Christmas presents sorted by the end of November.

But don’t assume that swot is just British for “nerd.” There’s an eager-to-please, everything-in-its-right-place, OCD, Monica Geller element to swots that isn’t really part of the glory of nerd-dom (correct me if I’m wrong, Nerdist.com). That’s why, when the word is used, it’s often just thrown around by people who are annoyed that someone seems to be more organized than they are.

Of course, that sense of prim and properness is part of the reason the term is used as an insult. It’s not the worst insult in the world though, no matter how bitterly thrown.

There’s not really a British equivalent of a term like “nerd” or “geek,” meaning a person who has that kind of passionate attachment to detailed knowledge in very specialized areas. We do have people like that, of course, they just didn’t have a collective name until we stole yours. Back in 1934, P.G. Wodehouse wrote about Gussie Fink-Nottle, the newt-obsessive, spectacle-wearing teetotal bachelor “with a face like a fish,” an archetypal comedy nerd if ever there was one, but we didn’t know it at the time.

What we do have is boffins – nothing to do with boffing, which I’m told is something very different – a boffin is pretty much anyone who is into science in quite an intense way and carries this intensity as a defining characteristic of their personality. Professor Stephen Hawking is a boffin. David Attenborough is a boffin. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, when he’s not dressed in his Flash costume, is a boffin as much as he is a nerd. Mad professors are boffins. The Doctor is a boffin. He’s not a nerd though, and clearly, by Time Lord standards, he’s nowhere near being a swot. Far too wayward for that.

Hermione Granger, on the other hand, is a swot. So’s Emma Watson. Stephen Fry is a swot AND a boffin. Thom ‘Read The Effing Manual’ Yorke, Chris ‘Study The Classics’ Martin and Oscar Wilde-quoting Morrissey all display distinctly swotty tendencies. People who do rocket surgery, they’re swots. None of them, however, are nerds (unless they happen to also be nerds on the side). Hermione’s devotion to magic is not an obsessive hobby of hers, she’s merely doing her very best at a school which specializes in magic. Her campaign to help house elves, that’s kinda nerdy.

The fact that I know this possibly makes ME a nerd, specifically about Harry Potter, but unless you were setting me a Hogwarts test, it wouldn’t make me a swot. Got it?

Note: Swot is also a verb. If you’re revising for your exams, you’re swotting. If you need to reawaken on your conversational French before a family holiday to mainland Europe, you can swot up. In this sense you can act in a swotty way without it being a lifestyle choice or social grouping.

Now, who’s ready for a pop quiz?

The Nerdist premieres Saturday, September 24 at 10/9c on BBC America. See more from Anglophenia:

Five Great British Things Americans Ruined and More
The Ladies of Doctor Who vs. The Women of Harry Potter
New Yorkers, Attend a Live Taping of ‘Would You Rather? with Graham Norton’

Fraser McAlpine

Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.

He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.

Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic

See more posts by Fraser McAlpine