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Osteological folklore: “bonfire”

Osteological folklore: “bonfire”

Deep are the roots of the oldest words. Who coined earth? Someone who dug-dug-dug and said er-er-er? Slang is also tough. Who coined tizzy? Someone who was in a swivet and felt dizzy-tizzy? We resigned ourselves to the fact that most of old words and of old and late slang came from “nowhere” (“origin unknown”). My today’s word is bonfire, which turned up in texts at the end of the fifteenth century. Seven years ago, I devoted a post to it (“Dancing around a bonfire”),and it was followed by a few comments, but today I know more about this tricky compound and can write the story in a different way, even though, as a matter of course, I will refer to some of the same sources.

Samuel Johnson, the author of the famous 1755 dictionary, did not doubt that bonfire means “good fire”: the first half of the word allegedly came from French, the second from English. Johnson, an outstanding lexicographer, knew very little about etymology (not that in 1755 there was too much to know about this subject) and copied his information from the 1671 dictionary by Stephen Skinner, who wrote in his entry: “Ignis bonus…”. Johnson’s etymologies were improved by John Todd in the 1818 edition (usually referred to as Johnson-Todd; incidentally, a very useful source). Much to his credit, he believed that bon– in bonfire goes back to bone. Nor was he the first to thinks so. As early as 1725, Henry Bourne, a curate from Newcastle upon Tyne, wrote that according to Belithus (known to modern scholars as “a ritualist of old times”), “to prevent the Infections before mentioned, they were wont to make on (sic) Fires of Bones, that the Smoke might drive away the Dragons” (quoted here from Bourne’s Antiquitates Vulgares; or the Antiquities of the Common People; in the Latin text, no dragons are mentioned: just “animals of this sort,” with reference to the previous statement).

Are bones the fuel here?
(By Nikodem Zieliński via Wikimedia Commons)

Other more or less fanciful suggestions about bon– in bonfire abound. It has not too rarely been traced to Dutch bonne “district” (sometimes “village”), as though a bonfire were a fire typical of some one place: “Bon-fire means then properly district fire. A bon-fire is a fire to celebrate festivals, and, in case of general rejoicing, each district would have, indeed has, its own bonne-fire.”  One wonders how those people imagined the process of coining hybrid compounds. What could make speakers of provincial English take a noun from Dutch and add another noun from English to produce bonfire?

The editor of Notes and Queries once wrote: “…there can be no doubt that the word Bon is from the Danish Baun, a beacon.” Amazingly, Hensleigh Wedgwood, the author of a once widely used dictionary of English etymology (1859; two more editions), adopted this idea. Time and again one encounters the phrase no doubt introducing the most nonsensical conclusions. As a curiosity, I may add that bon– has also been traced to boon or rather boons: bonfire emerged as a fire “made of materials obtained by begging.” Reference to Welsh ban “lofty, conspicuous” has also turned up in the literature. A surprisingly late (1977) fantasy derived bon– in bonfire from Old Icelandic bana “murderer,” the source of English bane. So much for refereed journals. (Other than that, my sources are articles in Notes and Queries and The Athenæum between 1858 and 1903.)

Long before the OED received its name, it was referred to as English Dictionary of or prepared for the Philological Society, and quite early, almost all the hypotheses mentioned above were known to those who worked on the great project. With regard to bonfire, Robert W. Griffith summarized the state of the art in 1866. Peter Gilliver, the author of a definitive book on the making of The Oxford English Dictionary, probably knows who Robert Griffiths was and what role he played in the Society’s work. The University of Minnesota, where I teach, owns his book, but someone is reading it, and I could not look up Griffith.

A bone of contention.
(Via Pxfuel, public domain.)

A thoughtful contributor to Notes and Queries supported the bone-fire idea but asked: “Did bones originally form the principal material for the fire, and give it the name it bears?” This is undoubtedly the main question in the present context. Many people tried to find a religious explanation for the word bonfire. The following is from Daniel Garrison Brinton, a nineteenth-century polymath and folklorist:

“Bones were burned as symbolic of a sacrifice… To this day [1890], in the remoter parishes of Munster and Connaught great fires are lighted on St. John’s eve, in each of which a bone is burnt, a survival of the sacrifices which once celebrated the midsummer night and the summer solstice. The bone in the bonfire was something more than a symbol. Its presence grew out of and illustrates the deepest and most remarkable phase of osteological folk-lore. It represented the animal or man burned in the ancient sacrifice, because the notion is nigh universal in primitive mythology and modern superstitions that the immaterial part of creatures, their indestructible element or soul, is connected with or resident in the bones.”

(Bred in the bone?) The rest of that paper is also interesting. See Notes and Queries, March 29, 1890, p. 259. Brinton may have been right, but in this case religion and economy are sometimes hard to separate. Parties of boys used to range the fields in search of bones for the fires that were lighted on the eve of St. John (23 June), because bones were supposed to yield enough oil, to revive the illumination toward the close of the display. No religion here.

The captain of our souls?
(By svetjekolem on Unsplash)

Yet Walter W. Skeat also once suggested that bonfire refers to the practice of burning the relics of saints. I don’t know what evidence he had for that conclusion, but one of the correspondents to Notes and Queries made an important point. If bonfire goes back to burning bones, why did the word appear in English so late? Skeat defended his etymology and ridiculed the idea that bone in bonfire goes back to bail, Baldr, or Bel, and “all the old rubbish” but never discussed the word’s chronology. Indeed, why did bonfire not turn up before the reign of Henry VIII? I have recently posted two blog posts on the origin of soul (part one; part two). Perhaps we should try to associate soul with a more solid substance than breath, butterflies, and their likes?

Those of our readers who know Russian will remember the word kostyor “bonfire” (stress on the second syllable). Kost’ means “bone,” but the root of kostyor has nothing to do with bones. The etymology of English bonfire is settled: this compound goes back to bone-fire. The vowel of bone– was shortened, as also happened in such compounds as Monday “Moon-day,” Christmas (as opposed to Christ), and so forth. But a few puzzles have not been solved. In the Modern English noun balefire, bale– is a remnant of the old word meaning “fire,” “funeral fire,” and “bonfire.” For some reason, this word went out of use, and bone-fire took its place. Why? What event in people’s religious life or customs resulted in the triumph of the newcomer? The unwieldy word must have been frequent enough in popular speech, for had it occurred rarely, its root vowel would have withstood shortening. It is those unanswered (hardly ever asked) questions that made me return to my old essay.

Featured image by Delphine Ducaruge on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    Does this mean that Danish ‘baunehoej’ might have once been ‘benehoej’? A barrow for bones and not a barrow for beacons?

  2. Constantinos Ragazas


    A practice (such as bonfires) could have existed well before the present word used to identify it. And even under different names!

    People burned open-field fires as long as there were people. And everywhere where people were. We have such annual celebration of ‘bonfires’ in Greece growing up. We did not call them ‘bonfires’ but something else. They were related to some pagan/religious celebrations. And yes there was dancing around the fire, with profane singing and wine drinking. The lyrics were most ‘dirty’ and surprisingly sang by old women!

    Why can’t the “bale” in “balefire” be “bales of hay”? Many good reasons why at times bales of hay (old hay, for example) had to be burned to make room for fresh hay.

    I can think of such possibilities. Can you?

  3. Peter Gilliver

    Dear Anatoly,

    I do indeed know who Robert Griffith was. He was a Cardiff solicitor, who at the time of his article in the Athenaeum about ‘bonfire’ had volunteered as a sub-editor for the (then) New English Dictionary (later the OED), undertaking part of the letter B. A significant quantity of his sub-edited material for words beginning with bo- survives in the OED archives, and I discuss it at some length in my book, which I hope you are soon able to consult once again.

    Best wishes,

  4. Maurice Waite

    My brother, when young, interpreted ‘bon’ in ‘bonfire’ as a productive morpheme (well, not in so many words) meaning ‘big’, so he used it to describe other big things until he grasped the concept of shared language.

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