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While dancing around a bonfire, beware of analogy

This is the week of the spring equinox, but I decided not to wait until June and write a post about the solstice. For a change, bonfire is “a word of (fairly well-)known origin,” so don’t expect revelations. However, it is always instructive to observe people beating about the bush long after it has burned up. The image of beating about the bush suggested the title of this post.

Bonfire, spelled as banefyre, first turned up in Catholicon Anglicum (1483), a late Middle English-Latin Dictionary. The dialect of the English part is believed to be that of northern Yorkshire. This explains why bone has the form bane; in the North, long a (the vowel like Modern Engl. a in spa) did not become long o. The writer glossed (translated) the compound as ignis ossium, literally “(the) fire of bones.” In and of itself, this fact is not of decisive importance, for the medieval lexicographer might be seduced by so-called folk etymology. The word bane-fyre was part of his active vocabulary (or so it seems), and he may have taken the first element for “bone.” To complicate matters, we know nothing about the person who put together Catholicon Anglicum, though he was, in all probability, a native speaker of English. The most difficult question is why a word that apparently referred to common practice (the burning of bones) emerged in a written text only at the end of the fifteenth century. More modern researchers expressed doubts about the origin of bonfire, jumped at conclusions, and fought one another, as is their wont. Those interested in the long discussion of the word’s history will find numerous useful references in my Bibliography of English Etymology.

John Minsheu, our earliest etymologist (1617), traced bonfire to Dutch but connected it with bone. In 1660 Thomas Fuller, mainly remembered today for his Church-History, wrote the following: “I meet with two etymologies of bonfires. Some deduce it from fires of bones, relating it to the burning of martyrs. But others derive it (more truly in my mind) from boon, that is good, and fires, whether good be taken here for great, or for merry and cheerful, such fires being always made on welcome occasions.” Regrettably, he did not say where he met those etymologies. One of his sources could have been Minsheu. Stephen Skinner (1671) came to the conclusion that bonfire meant “good fire,” and Samuel Johnson followed him (French bon “good”). Henry Todd, whose 1818 revision of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary makes wonderful reading, reverted to the bone-fire etymology. A more ingenious derivation of bonfire was offered in the nineteenth century by Hensleigh Wedgwood: he suggested that bone– had come from Danish bavn “beacon.” The Danish word is correct, but why should an English compound be half-English and half-Danish? This hybrid is as unlikely as bonfire being made up of a French adjective and an English noun. Who would have begotten such a linguistic mule? Besides, the everyday Scandinavian cognate of fire are eld ~ ild and eld(u)r “fire”, a point rubbed in by the irritated Skeat.

Belithus, a ritualist of ancient times, as Brand calls him in his Observations on Popular Antiquities, wrote of a custom known in some churches: people made fires of bones, so that the smoke might drive away the dragons. This statement was not forgotten in the eighteenth century, as I found out while reading Henry Bourne’s 1725 book Antiquitates Vulgares; or, the Antiquities of the Common People. Bourne served as a curate of the Parochial Chapel of All-Saints in Newcastle upon Tyne. Yet the important thing is not his office but the fact that bones, as he explained, were burned during the Vigil of St. Joan. I’ll leave out the discussion of which St. Joan he described; we should rather note that bonfires were made on special days. One of them was the eve of St. John (not St. Joan!), 23 June, the summer solstice. A nineteenth-century Lincolnshire man remembered how in his childhood boys and girls had “ranged the fields in search of bones for the fires that were lighted in almost every hamlet on that day.” He quoted the local idiom to drag a horse’s head to a bone-fire “to drag anything or anyone along by sheer violence.” The burning of bones seems to have been introduced mainly in connection with the festival of the solstice, and not only in England, as descriptions of the festivities in France show. This practice, or rather a special word for it, need not have been ancient.

Dancing around a bonfire
Dancing around a bonfire

The earliest word for “funeral” and “funeral fire, pyre” was bæl (long æ); bæl-fyre also existed. Engl. bale (not related to bale “evil” or bale “bundle”) was in use for many centuries. Bale-fyre may have given an impetus to the emergence of banefyre, a word of which we have no record before 1483, but this scenario, though proposed in the past, is unlikely. The subsequent history of bonfire shows that the neologism (if it was a neologism) had strong roots in people’s speech. It was, we should also agree, a native coinage, for no foreign model presents itself. Welsh banffagl “lofty fire” is, most probably, a borrowing from English. When bonfire arose or emerged, it meant bone-fire. The word may occasionally have had the same connotation as hellfire. Therefore, a suggestion to this effect I once encountered about the Porter’s speech in Macbeth sounds convincing. The Porter mentions “the primrose way to the everlasting bonfire” (Act II, Scene 3: note that the man’s speech almost begins with the word hell-gate).

As usual, I am aware of a few unsupportable etymologies of bonfire; they do not deserve our attention. The dogmatic formulation given in modern dictionaries (bonfire, from bone and fire, because bones were used as fuel) must be correct, but it does not do justice to the word’s history, and one understands Henry Cecil Wyld’s cautious statement: “Perhaps from bone; said to be so called because bones were formerly chief materials used.” Bones were never used as “chief materials,” and the earliest bonfires are unthinkable without reference to rituals. The modern form of bonfire presents no difficulties. In Middle English, long vowels were shortened in several positions. This explains the difference in the pronunciation of Christ and Christmas, holy and holiday, south and southern, and the like.

Our dance is temporarily over. It remains only to say something about the dangers of analogy promised in the title. It has often been observed that in no other European language do we have a word for “bonfire” similar to bone-fire. Considering the ritualistic origin of the English noun, this fact need not bother us too much. But the Russian for “(bon)fire” is kostyor (stress on –or), first recorded in 1216, and Russian kost’ means “bone.” Do we then have at least one good “counterpart”of bonfire? The Russian chronicle mentions kostry mertvykh “heaps of the dead.” The original meaning of the Slavic word was “heap”; yet judging by numerous examples from old texts and modern usage, such heaps were made up of sticks and brushwood but never of bones. However tempting, the analogy between Engl. bonfire and Russian kostyor is false.

The circuitous way has led us to the predictable conclusion: bonfire is indeed a bone-fire. However, the circumstances surrounding the emergence of the English compound should not be ignored. A look at “things” behind “words” always pays off.

Image credits: (1) Catholicon Anglicum via Medievalists.net. (2) “Bringing Up Fuel For The Bonfires” by Jay Hambidge. NYPL Image ID 801489. NYPL Digital Collections.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    This was really written nine months ago? Wow.

    Hushpuppy is an example of a hybrid English-French compound.

  2. Geir Qvist Nordhagen

    This is “the week of the summer solstice,”.

    Perhaps you meant spring equinox?


  3. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Midsummer, StJohn or Jāņi a.k.a. Līgo is the most celebrated holiday in Latvia with lots of bonfires, oak wreaths, cumin cheese and beer. It usually rains like cats and dogs. Similarly to “Noël au balcon, Pâques au tison” in French.

    Whatever the purpose of burning animal bones, there might be some relation between English coal and Latvian kauls (bone) though not etymological. Not knowing the process of burning bones it is hard to draw any conclusions. OED says that coal was given as a New Year’s gift to guarantee a warm hearth for the coming year.

    What is puzzling me is burn and brand confusion. In Latvian sometimes brand(a)vīns is still used along with degvīns for vodka. Degt (burn) is a cognate of a day that eventually comes after the celebration is over.

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