Following Dean Burnett’s summary on the word “Boffin” (or “Boff” as I more commonly encountered it), I’ve had a thought and pieced together why I think it’s more insulting than “geek” or “nerd”, which have been reclaimed.
I was called “boff” occasionally when I was in school. Once, I was told I should like it because it meant people thought I was clever… It wasn’t just an ugly word though, it simply wasn’t intended as a compliment.
I discussed this with @DPWF0, and we agreed that the term tended to be applied with extreme derision and hatred, as though by being clever and better at things than someone else, the “boff” was personally attacking the bully and deserved a counter attack.
And to me, it comes down to semantics:
There is no sense in the word “boff” or “boffin” of BEING clever
…It implies someone who DOES CLEVER THINGS consciously, deliberately and in order to establish superiority over others, i.e. that the “boff” is a suppressor and bullier of non-boffs. To me, it gets the same write-up as “teacher’s pet” or “snitch”. These people are bastards to their peers, out for their own end.
By contrast, “geek” and “nerd” do not carry these connotations. They more suggest “geeky interests” i.e. interests in academics rather than fashions. The negatives associated with these words are that they are dull people, sad people, socially inept and uncool people: but they are loveable and pitiable, whilst “boffins” deserve only scorn. And the loveable side is what makes “geek” and “nerd” reclaimable: allowing scientists to showcase some of the really cool and exciting academic interests they are engrossed by and prove that they are not as sexless and awkward as is believed. Besides this, the term is easier to self-apply because you don’t have to prove a prerequisite: you don’t have to be clever to be a geek: it’s about what you like, what choices you make, not what you are.
Which is precisely why the term “boffin” is unfair.