Bonfire
Posted: 05 November 2007 12:21 PM   [ Ignore ]
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One for November the 5th:  Is “bonfire” really derived from “bone fire”?  Etymonline says it was originally “banefire”.  Any evidence that the other meaning of “bane” - ie doom, ruin, was involved?

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Posted: 05 November 2007 12:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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No, “bane” there is simply an archaic variant spelling of “bone”, as is shown by the fact that the first citation, from which that spelling is taken, provides a Latin definition: “1483 Cath. Angl. 20/1 A banefyre, ignis ossium.”

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Posted: 06 November 2007 03:07 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Just an update. If you put a closed quart-sized can of floor stain in a backyard bonfire it will take about 3 minutes to heat up and then it will explode with a kind of ethereal mist of fire erupting mushroomlike into the air. Here in California there are still plenty of leaves on trees, so it can be dangerous. Not only that but it spreads little bits of burning material all around and makes a “boom” which might alert the fire department.

Beyond that, in my experience and as reported on TV shows, it takes quite a volume of heat to disintegrate bones. Perhaps not as hot a fire as is required to melt steel in, say, a skyscraper, but both are achievable. It’s not clear to me why “bone” should have been connected to a fire, unless it was to express a fire hot enough to turn the bones into ash, which if you want to get rid of bones is a desirable thing.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 05:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Bone ash is a valuable fertilizer, among other uses.  In human cremation it is desired to break down even the densest bone; if one simply wants to dispose of old animal bones and convert them into something more useful, it’s not so big a deal if a few recognizable chunks remain afterwards, and the fire needn’t be so intense. 

Here are some additional citations that make it clear we’re talking about burning bones:
1493 Festyvall (W. de W. 1515) 105 In worshyppe of saynte Johan the people waked at home, & made iij maner of fyres. One was clene bones and noo woode, and that is called a bone fyre. a1552 in Leland Brit. Coll. I. p. lxxvi, In some parts of Lincolnshire..on some peculiar nights, they make great fires in the public streets of their Towns with bones of oxon, sheep, &c. which are heaped together before. I am apt to believe..that from hence came the original of Bonefires. 1586 MARLOWE 1st. Pt. Tamburl. III. iii, Making bonfires for my overthrow. But, ere I die, those foul idolaters Shall make me bonfires with their filthy bones. 1684 DINELEY Dk. Beaufort’s Progr. Wales 154 A fire of joy..called a Bonfire..being part wood and part bones.

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Posted: 06 November 2007 09:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Is the term bonfire then used in the US? Is it for a specific fire or any backyard fire? Here in the UK it survives purely in the Guy Fawkes context, a context, of course, absent over there.

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Posted: 07 November 2007 03:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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My USn understanding of bonfire is that it is a large ourdoor fire, usually associated with some celebration.  The only pratical purpose for which it might be used is to toast marshmallows, and that would be incidental.  But, yes, it is used in the US.

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Posted: 07 November 2007 05:28 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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aldiboronti - 06 November 2007 09:32 PM

Is the term bonfire then used in the US? Is it for a specific fire or any backyard fire? Here in the UK it survives purely in the Guy Fawkes context, a context, of course, absent over there.

Disagree Aldi, I use ‘bonfire’ for any garden fire for the purpose of getting rid of things as well as something to hang around and keep warm on Guy Fawkes night. But not for a fire I wanted to cook on (I call that a campfire). If someone said they were going to light the fire I’d assume they meant the one in their house, if they were going to light a bonfire I’d assume it was in the garden.

Ah, just remembered, schools out song:

Build a bonfire, build a bonfire
Put the teachers on the top
Put the blackboard in the middle
And burn the b****y lot

[ Edited: 07 November 2007 05:31 AM by flynn999 ]
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Posted: 07 November 2007 08:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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My take on the US usage is the same as Faldage’s.

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Posted: 07 November 2007 04:19 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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For my US take, I’d take “celebration” down a notch to social gathering (other than a meal but not excluding toasted marshmallows and s’mores) and also include Flynn’s idea of getting rid of old furniture as a sometime use - cf the Halloween bonfire in “Meet Me in St. Louis” which was both.

On Christmas Eve in southern Louisiana, they place bonfires all along the Mississippi levees for miles (to guide the alligators towing Papa Noel’s skiff).

Another “infamous” US bonfire tradition: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aggie_Bonfire

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Posted: 07 November 2007 06:20 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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Myridon - 07 November 2007 04:19 PM

I’d take “celebration” down a notch to social gathering (other than a meal but not excluding toasted marshmallows and s’mores)

That’s a friendly amendment.

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