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Bonfire
Posted: 31 January 2012 11:07 AM   [ Ignore ]
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In the UK this term is pretty much confined now to the large public fires kindled on Guy Fawkes’ Night on which that unfortunate gentleman is burned in effigy, although his old companion in the flames, the Pope, has long for the most part been spared this indignity.  Does the word have any currency in the States, and if so how is it used?

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Posted: 31 January 2012 12:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I have known “bonfire” to be used in this sense:

Any large, intentionally arranged, outdoor fire, usually for the purpose of burning scrap/debris, or sometimes just for effect (fueled by real cord-wood in this case) attended by a group of people in a festive mood. Like a party. These usually take place in the late fall, and are often fueled by burning leaves and trimmings/clippings along with fallen wood.

Marshmallows are frequently toasted and sausages cooked. So the fires are usually not too large. Folk songs are often played and sung.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 12:23 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Bonfires are pretty popular in the U.S. at large outdoor gatherings of young people, including barbecues, summer camps and the like. 

One famous annual bonfire was the Texas A&M bonfire held the week before the rivalry football game against University of Texas.  The event grew so large that eventually dozens if not hundreds of students worked to build it each year, but the tradition ended in tragedy in 1999 when 12 people were killed when it collapsed during construction.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 12:30 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Aggie Bonfire

Pipped by jtab!

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Posted: 31 January 2012 02:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Nobody’s mentioned the etymology of “bonfire”, which appears (from the sources available to me) to have originally meant a fire in which bones were burnt.  Does anybody know what bones were burnt for, as far back as the Middle Ages? Since the 18th century, burnt bones have been used to make china, but not before that, it seems. So why would anyone go to the trouble of burning bones - a process which must have consumed a lot of fuel. For fertilizer? Can’t have been much of a fertilizer - calcium phosphate’s highly water-insoluble. Nowadays natural calcium phosphate is always treated with sulphuric acid to make “superphosphate” fertilizer. But back then? Anyone got any bright ideas?

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Posted: 31 January 2012 02:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I thought for sure it was for use as a fuel*, lionello.

I used to think it was from bon as in “good” but that seems to be not the case.

.

*[edit: I am wrong about that, I see now.  I wonder where that idea of mine came from.]

[ Edited: 31 January 2012 02:55 PM by sobiest ]
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Posted: 31 January 2012 02:47 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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It’s been a while since the occasion has presented itself…

aldi! aldi! aldi!

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Posted: 31 January 2012 03:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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All the entries in dictionary.com indicate that Bonfire comes from bonefire, a fire in which bones are burned.  The world english dictionary entry within dictionary.com indicates that the spelling shifted to bonfire through the influence of the French “Bon.” I’m not sure what the world English dictionary is basing this on, as it seems kind of speculative to me, but an interesting idea in any event.  And, to take the speculation even further, that MIGHT explain why the term took on a more positive connotation.  But that is of course just a guess.

All the dictionary.com entries say a bonefire involved burning bones, but they are vague as to how this was accomplished.  Some say a bone was burned “as fuel” while others say bones were burned “with fuel”.  That seems like a big distinction to me, but maybe I’m just reading too much into “as” vs “with”.  And I guess once the fire gets going, the bones become fuel even if they didn’t “jump start” the fire.

The prior discussion mentioned by Dr. Techie has an entry from Dr. Techie indicating that burning animal bones is not a big deal, but reducing human bones to ashes is much harder.  But I’m still not clear on how bonefires “work” from a practical standpoint.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 04:04 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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The difference is [EDIT: not] so much between human and animal bones in their properties, as between what people expect as the product of a bonefire vs cremation (especially modern).  In either case, I believe you have to do mechanical grinding of some sort if you want a lump-free product.

And (to lionello), although calcium phosphate is not very soluble, it will slowly deliver calcium and phosphate into soil (and the slow leaching can be a good thing).  For one thing, the solubility is highly pH dependent, and some soil microbes excrete acid to dissolve phosphate (which they use as a nutrient for themselves, but that gets the phosphate into the food chain).

[ Edited: 01 February 2012 12:42 PM by Dr. Techie ]
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Posted: 31 January 2012 04:24 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Wikipedia says of Bonfire: The name ‘bonfire’ is believed to be derived from the Celtic custom of burning the bones of the cattle which were slaughtered at Samhain - a ‘bone fire’.

Not sure how this squares with the observation that bonfire apparently dates only to Middle English.

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Posted: 31 January 2012 05:08 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I deleted that idiotic Celtic story and replaced it with the actual etymology.

Also: aldi, aldi, aldi!  (Repeating what Doc said because it’s such fun to say.)

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Posted: 31 January 2012 10:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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As someone who has thrown all kinds of bones into campfires, my experience is that you can only get them to burn if the fire is already very hot. A bonfire would be the best bone fire.

I can’t believe that the bones in a bone fire of old were simply fuel. It doesn’t make sense. You’re not going to build a fire hot enough to burn bones unless you have a specific purpose in mind and keeping the hut warm ain’t it. Bone fires must have been special events in some way.

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Posted: 01 February 2012 02:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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In the UK this term is pretty much confined now to the large public fires kindled on Guy Fawkes’ Night

I disagree entirely; bonfire is still used in the UK very much as sobiest describes. It’s just that bonfires are a lot rarer in Britain (especially urban Britain)than they used to be, except as part of Guy Fawkes Night.

I think the distinguishing characteristics of a bonfire are:

1. It’s a big fire designed to burn rapidly and produce plenty of flames. It’s not designed to be cooked on like a campfire (though you can bury potatoes in the ashes to bake) or to keep you warm on watch through the night. 

2. It’ a one-off event. If you burn your rubbish every week, that’s not a bonfire; but if you sweep up all the autumn leaves or have a big clear-out of your shed and burn the results, it is.

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Posted: 01 February 2012 02:25 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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Oops!

Edit: Just seen your post, Syntinen, and I concede I may well have fallen victim to the “I haven’t heard it in another sense for years so that sense has fallen into disuse” fallacy. (Acknowledgements to sobiest too who said the same thing upthread.)

[ Edited: 01 February 2012 02:43 AM by aldiboronti ]
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Posted: 01 February 2012 07:17 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
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Tom Wolfe knew it if only as allusion in the title of his novel:

The title is a reference to the historical Bonfire of the Vanities, which happened in 1497 in Florence, Italy when the city was under the rule of the Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola. The book’s title is apparently a reference to the vanities of New York society of the 1980s and appears to also be influenced by Ecclesiastes. The phrase ‘vanity of vanities, all is vanity’ is from Ecclesiastes. Both Ecclesiastes and The Bonfire of the Vanities have similar themes involving the lack of control anyone has over their lives regardless of their wealth, wisdom or success.

I don’t know if bonfire is a good or archaic translation there.

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Posted: 01 February 2012 07:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
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aldiboronti - 31 January 2012 11:07 AM

Does the word have any currency in the States, and if so how is it used?

Funny to hear you ask that, because when I hear the word I immediately think of the US novel and film, Bonfire of the Vanities.

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