Printable Version
Pronunciation: bahn-fair Hear it!

Part of Speech: Noun

Meaning: A large, outdoor fire, often lit to celebrate something or purge the community of some perceived evil.

Notes: This word has remained a lexical orphan with no family since its birth in the 15th century. In England Bonfire Night is still celebrated. Bonfire Night is a synonym for Guy Fawkes Night, since in some towns and villages bonfires are lit in celebration of this annual event. On November 5, 1605, Guy Fawkes was arrested while guarding the explosives placed beneath the House of Lords in the infamous Gunpowder Plot to blow it up. In celebration of the survival of King James I's government, bonfires were set around London. Since then they have become the signature event of Guy Fawkes Night.

In Play: Witches were also burned at the stake in bonfires in the past: "I wouldn't say that Jessie Belle is a witch, but she does avoid bonfires with a passion." She doesn't, in fact, even go out on Bonfire Night. The phrase bonfire of the vanities, the title of Tom Wolfe's best-selling book in the 80s and of the Brian De Palma movie to follow, goes back at least to February 7, 1497. On that date supporters of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola collected and publicly burned thousands of objects which, according to Savonarola, reflected the vanity of their owners. These objects included cosmetics, artworks, and books in Florence, Italy.

Word History: The origin of the English word is Scots English banefire "bonefine". It was common at one time for the people of a village to save up animal bones and burn them in a large fire on special occasions. Bone is a purely Germanic word, cousin of both Dutch been "bone, leg" and German Bein "leg". Fire is a distant cousin to Czech pýr "hot ashes" and Greek pyr "fire", which we borrowed as (funeral) pyre. It is a near cousin to German Feuer "fire" and similar words in other Germanic languages. Until Middle English it was spelled fier, which explains the alternate spelling of fiery. (We should light, perhaps, a small bonfire to celebrate Helen Brits's suggestion of today's very Good Word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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