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The origins of bonfire

By Tarli Cameron | October 19, 2021 | Word Geek

Word Geek - bonfire

The word bonfire makes us think of celebrations, toasting marshmallows, eating toffee apples and lighting sparklers. With Bonfire Night comes a time to enjoy warmth and light in what is otherwise a pretty drab time of year.

With such associations, it would be a fair assumption that the prefix bon in bonfire relates to the French word bon meaning good. Literacy figure and lexicographer, Samuel Johnson, wrongly jumped to the same conclusion.

In actual fact, the origin of the word bonfire is particularly gruesome. It derives from the Scots banefyre which means “a fire of bones”.

Banefyres originally denoted a Celtic tradition where midsummer festivals took place. On such days, animal bones were burned on open-air fires in a bid to ward off evil spirits and purify people or things. Not quite such a cosey event!