21

I wonder if the word "bonfire" is very often used in the English language. Maybe in different contexts than just the burning of something for fun, which is the main translation as I understood. I consider this a kind of exotic word if I think about the usage of the word in my native tongue (German).

I came across this, because I noticed that my son is now learning this word in school (sixth grade) and I remembered that I have learned the word "bonfire" in my school time (some 30 years ago) too in a somewhat early stage of learning English. This seems to indicate some basic usage or importance of this word, since it is delivered to learners on a beginner level.

It seems to me that the use of this word is rather limited and I didn't came across this word very often myself in the last 30 years. Though I have to admit that I am not using the English language very often in conversation with native speakers. I mainly use English by reading and a bit by writing, mostly in a tech context.

So I am really curious if there is something more about the "bonfire", that I have not recognized yet or if maybe there is some mysterious affection of German school publishers to this word.

As an anecdote from the past, I can tell that I found it cool that I knew the meaning of the name of the then somewhat popular German band "Bonfire" :-), but my son does not have a gain like that, since the band is maybe a little out of fashion, at least for the younger ones...

  • Less than campfire in recent years, but not entirely incomparable to banana, all things considered: books.google.com/ngrams/… It's certainly a known word, but the question gets muddled up in how often people talk about outdoor fires in general. It's used about half as much as banana, and you'd be hard pressed to find a native speaker who doesn't know that word. – jimm101 Nov 16 at 20:57
  • The soccer fans here in the northwest US regularly sing, “Build a bonfire, build a bonfire ....” The rest is profane. – Davislor Nov 16 at 23:39
44

Bonfire is in common usage in the UK today, where it means any outdoor fire, normally built from wood or rubbish. As commenters have noted, in American and Canadian usage, a bonfire is specifically a large outdoor fire, but it's still a perfectly common word.

Some think that ‘bonfire’ is a mix of the French "bon" meaning "good" and the English Anglo-Saxon “fire”. Early believers included the British lexicographer Samuel Johnson, who offered up that etymology in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language.

Johnson defined bonfire as:

"a fire made for some publick cause of triumph or exaltation,"

He derived the word from the French bon and the English word fire - the phenomenon of combustion manifested in light, flame, and heat.

However, the etymology was changed in the 1890 Webster's International Dictionary, where it is shown as derived from Middle English bonefire, meaning literally "a fire of bones."

The earliest appearance of the word is glossed ignis ossium — Latin for "fire of bones." A citation from the 15th century confirms that this may not be just a learned folk-etymology:

But in worshipp of seinte iohan the people woke at home & made iij maner of fyres. On was clene bones & no wode & that is callid a bone fyre. A nothir is clene wode & no bones & that is callid a wode fyre fore people to sitte & to wake there by.
—John Mirk, Liber Festivalis, 1486

“But in worship of Saint John, the people woke at home and made three types of fires. One was clean bones and no wood and that is called a bonefire…”

In medieval times ‘Bonefires’ were probably common towards the end of the agricultural year, when any farmer needing to eke out their winter fodder would slaughter some of their livestock, keeping only breeding pairs with a view to replacing their stock the following spring. Having preserved the meat, rendered the fat, and treated the hides, they were left with the carcasses – the bones. These were then burnt on “bone fires” so as to convert these otherwise useless bones into potash fertiliser… This winter tradition is probably one reason a bonfire is used to celebrate Guy Fawkes' Night in the UK, on 5th November each year.

There are a few key points in favour of the "bone fire" etymology:

  1. The French – English composite word idea is somewhat unusual.
  2. Knowing that the word goes back to the 15th century, it is more likely to have evolved into boonfire, since boon is the English form that developed from the French bon.
  3. The spelling in the word's earliest appearance is in the form banefyre, and bane is a spelling of bone which continued in common use in Scotland.
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    FWIW, it's not uncommon in US English either. I mean, I wouldn't say it's an everyday word, but I don't think too many native English speakers on either side of the pond (or anywhere else) would be unfamiliar with it. – Darrel Hoffman Nov 14 at 16:23
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    But gentle entered English around the same time as gentleman, @G.Ann-SonarSourceTeam: 13th century. Bon never really naturalised as English. – Colin Fine Nov 14 at 19:58
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    If the gloss of the John Mirk quote is your own, it might make sense to gloss Iohan as John. Note that St John's feast day is still celebrated with bonfires in some countries. – Peter Taylor Nov 15 at 11:21
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    In Canadian English, "bonfire" typically refers only to a large outdoor fire, as one might have as part of a gathering or party (though not necessarily celebratory). A smaller outdoor fire is simply a "fire" or "campfire". – Sebastian Lenartowicz Nov 15 at 13:23
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    Similar to Canadian usage (re: Sebastian's comment), in US English not every outdoor fire is a bonfire, just large ones. A normal fire for camping (within a fire ring, for example) is just called a fire or campfire. But the term is quite common. – TylerH Nov 15 at 21:05
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People who teach languages well usually try to make the subject matter interesting and pertinent to the lives and interests of the students involved. So very young learners learn the names of animals and the sounds they make, for example, because that is something that very young people are usualy interested in, not because knowing ribbet is very useful when you become an international lawyer.

Another feature of good language teaching is often felt to be to engage the learners with the interesting or colourful aspects of the culture that the language is associated with. So students of English often know terms like Big Ben or even bowler hat, even though these items are not high frequency for real speakers of English.

Lastly, teachers often try to make their lessons topical for students. So we might expect lessons about Thanksgiving, Valentine's Day, Independence Day and so forth at relevant times of the year. No doubt next Friday, there will be thousands of lessons about the International Day of Peace.

The reason the Original Poster's son is learning the item bonfire during the first week in November is almost definitely related to the British cultural phenomenon of Bonfire Night, where we like to celebrate the fact that the Houses of Parliament only missed getting blown up by a gnat's whisker. How do we do this? We start fires up and down the country. Oops, I mean we have bonfires.

The problem with corpora like the BNC or COCA is that they cannot have a comprehensive coverage of different registers. So, for example you will find no hits at all for revise for an exam (rampant in British English) in either of these corpuses, even though hundreds of thousands of students of various descriptions commonly use this phrase. The spoken English of students is just not sampled when putting together such corpora.

So while the word bonfire might not feature heavily in the spoken English of international bankers or American news programmes, every November it has a starring role in the social calendar of every self-respecting British youngster along with other items such as sparkler, firework and toffee apple!

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    Excellent caveat on the limitations of BNC etc. I trust it's that and not the thought of fireworks and toffee apples encouraging the other upvote. // This is an altogether worthwhile question, with the key word 'bonfire' largely a catalyst, almost incidental. // Are you sure that 'we' have much idea of what 'we''re celebrating around Nov 5th? Saving civil order? Giving it a violent nudge? Destruction in general? Son et lumiere? OK, toffee apples. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 14 at 9:53
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    Bonfires continue to be more actively political in Northern Ireland, just not on the 5th November. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eleventh_Night – Spagirl Nov 14 at 11:48
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    To be fair, no one in the United States says, "revise for an exam", so it makes good sense that it would not appear in a corpus of American English. The verb would always be "review". Revise implies making changes. – Cody Gray Nov 14 at 18:28
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    @CodyGray True; I'd never heard "revise for an exam" before, and especially not in the sense of studying. And while I agree with the point on corpus register, the example isn't that good for a corpus search, since exact phrasal searches usually turn up few or no results, and a specific phrase with revise will logically have fewer results than the word revise, just like any subset would. (And, as it turns out, a collocation search for REVISE with exam does turn up a result in BNC, and REVIEW with exam in COCA turns up 10 results, which is in the ballpark for phrasing specific to a context.) – TaliesinMerlin Nov 14 at 19:23
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    "Review" and "study" for an exam are used interchangeably in American English, @Mark. If there is a difference, it's that "study" has the connotation of a more intensive process, compared to a mere "review". I have literally never heard any native US English speakers say "revise for an exam", and I've spent quite a bit of time in academia. In fact, I've only ever heard it once in a US academic setting, and it was from a Prof who studied in Pakistan. If someone said "exam revision", it would almost certainly be interpreted as a proctor making changes to their own exam, not a student preparing. – Cody Gray Nov 15 at 6:43
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Bonfires are actually pretty common in my experience:

  • My neighborhood has one every year
  • My brothers have several per year with their friends
  • My friends sometimes have them at their houses

This is in the suburbs (in America), where people are close enough to easily get together and there’s also space to have a bonfire. There’s also lots of fuel for them because there’s some trees and some people also burn yard waste, planks, paper, etc.

Number-wise, I have 25 instances of the word bonfire in my messages from 19 different days across a 3 year period.

For data from a bigger (and also very different) sample, COCA puts the lemma bonfire at 2.46 instances per million words, which puts it just ahead of rhino (2.41 instances per million). And I think that almost everyone knows what “rhino” means, even if it’s not something that comes up all that often in conversation. And I would say the same is true for bonfire.

  • Would be interesting if there was a COCA equivalent for spoken language or casual communication methods, like texting or social media. Something tells me, "bonfire" is much more common in those channels than in the sources used for COCA. – dwizum Nov 14 at 15:02
  • @dwizum COCA includes spoken English, but I think it’s mostly from TV interviews or talk shows. Some of the other BYU corpora are web based, but actually these contain bonfire at a lower rate. A corpus of personal communications would be best but I doubt any exist because that would be invasive. If I knew how to better search iMessage I’d give you the percentages for me. – Laurel Nov 14 at 16:29
  • Yes, I guess my comment was wishful thinking more than a concrete idea. Thinking of my own use, I'd bet that "bonfire" appeared most heavily in communication that wouldn't be on any corpora - verbal conversation or text messages in my late teens and early twenties. Hence I'm wondering if it's a word where the usage is harder to define than words likely to appear in sources that are easier to catalog. – dwizum Nov 14 at 16:35
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There are a few quick ways to gauge usage in English. The short answer is that bonfire is not all that common, but it's also used enough that most fluent speakers (especially in the US and UK) will be familiar with the term.

Oxford English Dictionary Frequency - The OED has a measure for frequency in current use for each of the words in its online dictionary. It is a scale out of 8, and its data is derived from a version of Google Ngrams ("Key to frequency"). The noun "bonfire" has a frequency of 5, which means the following:

Band 5 contains words which occur between 1 and 10 times per million words in typical modern English usage. These tend to be restricted to literate vocabulary associated with educated discourse, although such words may still be familiar within the context of that discourse. The shift away from the everyday language found in bands 8-6 is apparent in nouns (e.g. surveillance, assimilation, tumult, penchant, paraphrase, admixture), adjectives (e.g. conditional, cumulative, arithmetic, radioactive, symptomatic, authorized, Neolithic, discontinuous, preconceived, metrical), verbs (e.g. appropriate, comprehend, presuppose, perpetuate, encircle, jeopardize, subsist, gravitate, proscribe), and adverbs (e.g. markedly, empirically, functionally, disproportionately, ad hoc, exponentially, preferentially). This band also contains the most common adjectives derived from the names of philosophers and scientists (e.g. Aristotelian, Platonic, Cartesian, Newtonian, Darwinian, Marxist, Freudian). Most words which would be seen as distinctively educated, while not being abstruse, technical, or jargon, are found in this band.

About 4% of all non-obsolete OED entries are in Band 5.

Locally, I'd say bonfire is well-known enough that it'd go in this band, and largely in contexts like church retreats, scout troop outings, and outdoor parties.


Corpus searches in COCA and BNC - Corpuses like those at English Corpora can give valuable data about the frequency and use of a word. The Corpus of Contemporary American English and the British National Corpus feature hundreds of millions of words gathered from print media, interviews, broadcasts, and other formats. So I'll present the number of appearances in each corpus, the number of total entries in the corpus, the number of appearances per million words, and then provide some qualitative comments.

  1. COCA: 1091 entries among 570,353,748 words, or 1.913 appearances per 1 million words.

  2. BNC: 270 entries among 96,263,399 words, or 2.80 appearances per 1 million words.

This is about the rate I would expect for searching a commonly-known but not everyday word. For example, the food word cashew appears 277 times in COCA, and the more common peanut appears 5,057 times. Meanwhile, for bonfire, the hypernym fire is far more common with 83,757 entries in COCA. So bonfire certainly isn't an obscure word, but it's also situationally specific.


Google Ngram - Google uses the data it has from book scans to prepare data on how common words are in relation to one another. These Ngrams can be quite useful to see how common a word is. Here's one I prepared with bonfire:

enter image description here

The Ngram is good for showing related words with similar usage rates next to one another, and mapping trends in usage across time. For instance, we can see that bonfire, as a word, was once used more compared to the total corpus of words Google has. That might be worth investigating. Note, however, that it is easy to manipulate the Y axis by picking a word that's far more common:

enter image description here

Compared to fire, bonfire is a blip. So it's not like bonfire was once very common and now is less common.


In summary, bonfire is a commonly understood word that is only occasionally used. Its appearance in your English curriculum could be explained as a teacher's or a curriculum's interest in activities around bonfires, in adding some deeper vocabulary among more common words to spice up the reading and aid language acquisition, or something else.

  • 1
    +1 for a generally well-researched and in places extremely useful answer. / In the UK, 'bonfire', as NeilB says, is often used semi-whimsically for any fire to get rid of unwanted burnable material in say the garden. It sounds more user-friendly, manageable ... cosy, than bald 'fire' (and of course terrible 'wildfire'). It's also important to take on board the caveat Araucaria adds to the interpretation of raw corpus data. – Edwin Ashworth Nov 14 at 9:59
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    @EdwinAshworth Why do you say this is a "semi-whimsical" usage in the UK? Aside from the fires at public events, it is just the prosaic word used to describe fires for the purpose of rubbish disposal, in communities where such things are still appropriate and commonplace (e.g. farming). – alephzero Nov 14 at 11:07
  • Perhaps dependent on geographical location (e.g. rural vs. city)? – Peter Mortensen Nov 14 at 11:56
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    The "only occasionally used" must be a regional thing. In the rural US, at least, it is ab absolutely common word for a small fire that's deliberately started and not a campfire. For instance, I and my neighbors regularly have bonfires in the spring to dispose of sticks & other things that are too big to compost but too small to burn in the wood stove in winter. – jamesqf Nov 14 at 16:11
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    @EdwinAshworth Having a grandad with an allotment who made a habit of work-a-day bonfires I think you've got it the wrong way round - when I was young, bonfire is the name for a fire to create ash to use as fertiliser, which is what the etymology indicates is the traditional meaning. – Pete Kirkham Nov 14 at 23:12
5

Although Wikipedia and Lexico both describe a bonfire as a "large but controlled outdoor fire", here in England a small bonfire would be lit as a way to dispose of garden refuse that could not be composted. It wasn't a party, or for fun, but a job to be done.

Every few weeks we would light a small bonfire and with careful management it would smoulder for several days. This was necessary because material like cabbage stumps will not immediately burn. The fire was started with dry stuff like hedge clippings, and when thoroughly hot it was damped down with wetter material to keep the draught out and stop it from burning too quickly.

It is less common now, but was standard practice in the days when there were no official dumps for household waste, and no "green" refuse collections, and before it became unacceptable to light open fires outdoors.

In those (mid to late 20th century) days, the word bonfire was in common use.

  • unacceptable - that is a lot of particles. Illegal now (dependent on the season)? – Peter Mortensen Nov 14 at 11:58
  • @PeterMortensen it isn't strictly illegal, but the nuisance it can cause is. – Weather Vane Nov 14 at 12:01
1

The neo-liberal politicians in New Zealand like to use the phrase "a bonfire of regulations" eg "metaphorically" disposing by burning of regulations they dislike - here "bonfire" implies a large amount.
Personally I'd rather see "a bonfire of neo-liberals", but that will never happen.

As you can see, "bonfire" can used in a metaphorical as well as literal sense.

0

Fascinating thread everyone, thank you. “Bonfire“ is still commonly used in the UK to describe an outside fire. In England, there are organised bonfires in November to celebrate Guy Fawkes night and in Northern Ireland there are many bonfires in July for different historical reasons. Interestingly, the term is often abbreviated colloquially in N Ireland to “boney” and I wonder if this is derived from the old practice of burning old bones for potash, as described by another contributor above.

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