Etymology Corner – ‘bonfire’


Coming as it does just after the clocks have been turned back, Bonfire Night brings a welcome distraction from the dark November evenings. Bonfires produce warmth, light, and good cheer at an otherwise dreary time of the year. So when the great lexicographer Samuel Johnson compiled his dictionary he not unreasonably supposed that the word ‘bonfire’ is related to the French word bon, and means a ‘good fire’.

However, Johnson’s explanation of the word is probably mistaken, and the true origin of the word is somewhat more macabre. A bonfire was originally a ‘bone-fire’. Bonfires are a survival of an old tradition whereby large fires were set alight on public feast days. The bones of animals were burned in these fires as a part of a purification ritual, warding off evil spirits and ensuring that the land would remain fertile.

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