Presumably from Middle English bonefire, bonefyre, banefyre (“a fire in which bones were burnt”), equivalent to bone + fire. Cognate with Scots banefire (“bonfire”) and Welsh banffagl (“bonfire”). More at bone, fire.
For long, scolars have suspected that the prevailing explanation offered since the late 15th century might be a folk-etymology. Alternative etymologies derive the first component bon from English bane (“woe”), boon (“request for fuel”) or, alternatively, Danish bavn (“bonfire, beacon”) (pronounced /bɑwˀn/). It must be said, however, that modern Danish bavn is derived from more distant Old Norse forms bákn, báken, and Proto-Germanic *baukną. Another candidate might be Proto-Celtic *bānos (“white”), which is also present in Welsh banffagl (“bonfire”), equivalent to bân (“white”) + ffagl (“flame, torch, fire-brand,blaze”). In both cases, the word bonfire might have been influenced by English balefire (“bonfire, pyre”), Old English bælfyr (“balefire, funeral or sacrificial fire”), equivalent to bæl (“pyre, bonfire”) + fyr (“fire”) and deriving from an older Proto-Germanic *bēlą. The forms *baukną, *bēlą, and *bānos stem from closely related Proto-Indo-European roots *bʰeh₂-, *bʰā- and *bʰel- (“shining, white”). The latter is also present in the theonym Beltane, usually associated with the origins of the custom of burning bonfires.
bonfire (plural bonfires)
- (obsolete) A fire in which bones were burned.
- A fire to burn unwanted or disreputable items or people: proscribed books, heretics etc.
- A large, controlled outdoor fire, as a signal or to celebrate something.
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- ^ “bonfire” in Douglas Harper, Online Etymology Dictionary (2001).
- ^ A. Smyth Palmer, Folk-Etymology. A Dictionary, London 1882, 35-36.
- ^ A. Gailey and G.B. Adams, 'The Bonfire in North Irish Tradition', in: Folklore 88 (1977), nr.1, pp. 3-38, 27, 35 (with an Appendix: European Words for “bonfire”.
- ^ Ronald Hutton, The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain, Oxford University Press, 1996, pp. 218–225.