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PIE word
A guy being burned in a bonfire (sense 1) on Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night in Cornwall, England, U.K.
A bonfire (sense 1) lit at a Midsummer festival in Mäntsälä, Finland.
A U.S. soldier burning trash on a bonfire (sense 2).

The noun is derived from Late Middle English bon-fir, bonefire, bonnefyre (fire in which bones are burnt, bonfire) [and other forms],[1] apparently from bon (bone; series of connected bones regarded as a unit; bone-like part of the body such as a piece of cartilage, tooth, tusk, etc.; animal’s dewclaw) + fir (fire). Bon is derived from Old English bān (bone) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *bʰeyh₂- (to hit, strike; to cut, hew)),[2] while fir is from Old English fȳr (fire) (ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *péh₂wr̥ (fire)).[3] The first element of the word has sometimes been assumed to be French bon (good; correct, right).[4]

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) notes that bonfires, originally lit as part of midsummer celebrations, were not generally associated with the burning of bones. However, the first edition of the OED (under the title A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles, 1887) stated that “for the annual midsummer ‘banefire’ or ‘bonfire’ in the burgh of Hawick [in Roxburghshire, Scotland], old bones were regularly collected and stored up, down to c. 1800”.[4][5]

The verb is derived from the noun.[6]



bonfire (plural bonfires)

  1. A large, controlled outdoor fire lit to celebrate something or as a signal.
    Synonym: (archaic or obsolete) bale
    • c. 1597 (date written), [William Shakespeare], The History of Henrie the Fourth; [], quarto edition, London: [] P[eter] S[hort] for Andrew Wise, [], published 1598, →OCLC, [Act III, scene iii]:
      O thou art a perpetuall triumph, an euerlaſting bonefire light, []
    • 1611, Iohn Speed [i.e., John Speed], “Edward the Fourth, First King of the House of Yorke, King of England and France, []”, in The History of Great Britaine under the Conquests of yͤ Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans. [], London: [] William Hall and John Beale, for John Sudbury and George Humble, [], →OCLC, book IX ([Englands Monarchs] []), paragraph 50, page 681:
      Theſe vvith the like diſtaſtures, diuulged among the rude multitude, it vvas a vvorld to ſee the face of this nevv VVorld, for in euery ſtreete Bonfires vvere made, in euery Church bels rung, Ditties vvere ſung at euery meeting, and euery man cryed K. Henry, King Henry, []
    • 1659 December 30 (date written), Robert Boyle, “[Experiment 37]”, in New Experiments Physico-Mechanicall, Touching the Spring of the Air, and Its Effects, (Made, for the Most Part, in a New Pneumatical Engine) [], Oxford, Oxfordshire: [] H[enry] Hall, printer to the University, for Tho[mas] Robinson, published 1660, →OCLC, page 309:
      And vve particularly remember, that, being at ſome diſtance from London one Night, that the People, upon a very vvell-come Occaſion, teſtified their Joy by numerous Bon-fires; though, by reaſon of the Interpoſition of the Houſes, vve could not ſee the Fires themſelves, yet vve could plainly ſee the Air all enlighten'd over and near the City; vvhich argu'd, that the lucid Beams ſhot upvvards from the Fires, met in the Air with the Corpuſcles opacous enough to reflect them to our Eyes.
    • 1710 October 2 (Gregorian calendar), Joseph Addison, “The Whig-Examiner: No. 2. Thursday, September 21. [1710.]”, in The Works of the Right Honourable Joseph Addison, Esq; [], volume IV, London: [] Jacob Tonson, [], published 1721, →OCLC, page 339:
      Towns have been taken, and battles have been won; the mob has huzza'd round bonefires, the Stentor of the chappel has ſtrained his throat in the gallery, and the Stentor of S——m has deafned his audience from the pulpit.
    • 1849, Thomas Babington Macaulay, chapter I, in The History of England from the Accession of James II, volume I, London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, →OCLC, page 148:
      The bells of all England rang joyously: the gutters ran with ale; and, night after night, the sky five miles round London was reddened by innumerable bonfires.
  2. A fire lit outdoors to burn unwanted items; originally (historical), heretics or other offenders, or banned books; now, generally agricultural or garden waste, or rubbish.
  3. (figuratively) Something like a bonfire (sense 1 or 2) in heat, destructiveness, ferocity, etc.
  4. (obsolete) A fire lit to cremate a dead body; a funeral pyre.
    Synonym: (archaic) bale
    • 1567, Ovid, “The Seventh Booke”, in Arthur Golding, transl., The XV. Bookes of P. Ouidius Naso, Entytuled Metamorphosis, [], London: [] Willyam Seres [], →OCLC, folio 90, verso:
      The bodies which the plague had ſlaine were (O moſt wretched caſe) / Not caried forth to buriall now. For why ſuch ſtore there was / That ſcarce the gates were wyde inough for Coffins forth to paſſe. / So eyther lothly on the ground vnburied did they lie, / Or elſe without ſolemnitie were burnt in bonfires hie / No reuerence nor regard was had.
    • c. 1587–1588, [Christopher Marlowe], Tamburlaine the Great. [] The First Part [], 2nd edition, part 1, London: [] [R. Robinson for] Richard Iones, [], published 1592, →OCLC; reprinted as Tamburlaine the Great (A Scolar Press Facsimile), Menston, Yorkshire, London: Scolar Press, 1973, →ISBN, Act III, scene iii:
      Now wil the Chriſtian miſcreants be glad, / Ringing with ioy their ſuperſtitious belles: / And making bonfires for my ouerthrow. / But ere I die thoſe foule Idolaters / Shall make me bonfires with their filthy bones, []
    • 1658, Thomas Browne, “Hydriotaphia, Urne-buriall. []. Chapter II.”, in Hydriotaphia, Urne-buriall, [] Together with The Garden of Cyrus, [], London: [] Hen[ry] Brome [], →OCLC, page 22:
      For after Tertullian, in the dayes of Minucius it was obviouſly objected upon Chriſtians, that they condemned the practiſe of burning. [] And perhaps not fully diſuſed till Chriſtianity fully eſtabliſhed, vvhich gave the finall extinction to theſe ſepulchrall Bonefires.

Alternative forms[edit]

Derived terms[edit]


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See also[edit]


bonfire (third-person singular simple present bonfires, present participle bonfiring, simple past and past participle bonfired)

  1. (transitive)
    1. To destroy (something) by, or as if by, burning on a bonfire; (more generally) to burn or set alight.
      • 1828 May, “[Review of New Publications.] 96. Nichols’s Progresses of King James I. Parts XIX. and XX. (Concluded from p. 154.)”, in Sylvanus Urban [pseudonym], editor, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and Historical Chronicle, volume XXI (New Series; volume XCVIII overall), 1st part, London: [] J[ohn] B[owyer] Nichols and Son, []; and sold by John Harris, [], published 2 June 1828, →OCLC, page 427, column 1:
        [L]ike the Christmas joke of snapdragons for children, the very liquor was to be bonfired also, and drank burning.
      • 1870 June 20, [James Warren] Nye, “Post Office Appropriation Bill”, in F. & J. Rives and George A. Bailey, editors, The Congressional Globe: [] (United States Senate, 41st Congress, 2nd session), volume LXIII, part V, Washington, D.C.: Blair and Rives;  [], →OCLC, page 4646, column 2:
        Sir, there are as many public documents as you could put in this room that must be taken out and bonfired, that have cost millions, that must be burned up, unless this provision of the honorable Senator from Illinois is carried.
      • 1894, William Hawley Smith, “House-cleaning and History”, in Walks Abroad and Talks about Them, Peoria, Ill.: Educational Press Association, →OCLC, page 210:
        And as for ancient history, I think a good share of that could be bonfired. Kings, Emperors, Popes, Doges, Consuls, Priests, Shahs, Pharoahs, and all their quarrels and squabblings, with the times and seasons of the same—what a fine blaze they would make, and it is the only fine thing they could make, as I count it.
      • 1895 July 20, “Chinese Items”, in The Japan Weekly Mail: A Review of Japanese Commerce, Politics, Literature, and Art, volume XXIV, number 3, Yokohama: [] James Ellacutt Beale, [], →OCLC, page 67, column 3:
        From one house they went to another, from that to another, until not one of the Christian[s]' houses was left standing. Everything was deliberately taken outside and bonfired; where the house adjoined others it was destroyed, where it stood alone it was given over to the devouring element.
      • 1930, Wyndham Lewis, “At the American Bar”, in The Apes of God, Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, published 1981, →ISBN, part XII (Lord Osmund’s Lenten Party), page 454:
        [L]ibraries to be bonfired on the ground that the care of books competed with the care of babies, []
      • 1939 May 4, James Joyce, Finnegans Wake, London: Faber and Faber Limited, →OCLC; republished London: Faber & Faber Limited, 1960, →OCLC, part I, page 46:
        So snug he was in his hotel premises sumptuous / But soon we'll bonfire all his trash, tricks and trumpery / And 'tis short till sheriff Clancy'll be winding up his unlimited company
      • 1988, Bill James [pseudonym; James Tucker], chapter 24, in Protection, London: Penguin Books, published 1989, →ISBN, page 161:
        In any case, he made a point of bonfiring most of Lane's ideas, especially the liberal ones.
      • 2001, Kathy Lette, “Relying on the Kindness of Passing Serial Killers”, in Nip ’n’ Tuck, Sydney, N.S.W.: Picador, →ISBN, page 234:
        'Thank you, Bruce sweetie,' Victoria said, serenely, the operating light directly behind her bonfiring her hair.
      • 2007, A[ndrew] N[orman] Wilson, “The Flying Dutchman”, in Winnie and Wolf, London: Hutchinson, →ISBN, page 28:
        We fell, fell, fell all of us, Icaruses, bits of papery ash falling through dusk after the German Reich had been bonfired out of existence by French and Bolshevist guile.
      • 2016 July, James Abel, Cold Silence (A Joe Rush Novel), New York, N.Y.: Berkley Books, →ISBN, page 60:
        Skinny militia fighters with canisters on their backs had circled the compound. Burning gasoline-covered tents and corpses, bonfiring the thorn tree barrier, creating heat so profound it convoluted the air and made our plane bounce.
    2. (ceramics) To fire (pottery) using a bonfire.
      • 2000, Moira Vincentelli, “Running the Business”, in Women and Ceramics: Gendered Vessels, Manchester, New York, N.Y.: Manchester University Press, →ISBN, page 195:
        The pots are formed by the coiling method and bonfired using palm fronds, grass and sometimes dung.
      • 2002, Susan Peterson, Jan Peterson, “Firing Ceramics”, in Working with Clay, 2nd edition, London: Laurence King Publishing, →ISBN, page 131, column 1:
        In China, where huge figures have been excavated in recent years at Xian, archaeologists surmise that they were probably bonfired lying horizontally in a pit, or possibly handmade bricks were piled over the sculptures to retain heat; the bricks would have been removed from round the figure when the firing was over.
      • 2003, Susan Peterson, “The Legacy of Generation: Pottery by Contemporary American Indian Women”, in Susan R. Ressler, editor, Woman Artists of the American West, Jefferson, N.C., London: McFarland & Company, →ISBN, section II (Identity), page 104, column 1:
        Fabricated in the coil and pinch manner of old societies, the work was bonfired—but then a unique treatment was used. Before the pot had cooled, hot melted pitch from piñon trees was poured or rubbed in a thin coating over the vessel, inside and out. This unusual technique distinguished the look and aroma of Navajo pottery.
    3. (obsolete) To start a bonfire in (a place); to light up (a place) with a bonfire.
      • 1743 November 28 (Gregorian calendar), Horace Walpole, “To Sir Horace Mann”, in The Letters of Horace Walpole, Earl of Orford: [], volumes I (1735–1748), Philadelphia, Pa.: Lea and Blanchard, published 1842, →OCLC, page 349:
        They almost carried him [the king] into the palace on their shoulders; and at night the whole town was illuminated and bonfired.
  2. (intransitive, rare) To make, or celebrate around, a bonfire.
    • 1844 January–December, W[illiam] M[akepeace] Thackeray, “In which Barry Takes a Near View of Military Glory”, in “The Memoirs of Barry Lyndon, Esq. [The Luck of Barry Lyndon.]”, in Miscellanies: Prose and Verse, volume III, London: Bradbury and Evans, [], published 1856, →OCLC, page 62:
      [W]hen the news of the battle of Lissa came even to our remote quarter of Ireland, we considered it as a triumph for the cause of Protestantism, and illuminated, and bonfired, and had a sermon at church, and kept the Prussian king's birthday, on which my uncle would get drunk, as indeed on any other occasion.
    • 2014 March 27, Joan Rust, “11.7.10: Spangles and Big C-Burgers”, in Anniecat Chronicles, [Bloomington, Ind.]: Xlibris, →ISBN, page 131:
      Seems as if one day we are all bar-b-quing, swimming, jetskiing, bonfiring, and the next thing you know everyone is gone, leaving the house empty (except for the sad pile of damp towels and a refrigerator full of sloppy Jo's).
    • 2016, Alexandra Sirowy, chapter 4, in The Telling, New York, N.Y., London: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, →ISBN, page 36:
      Before I got out of Josh's car as he dropped me off after Marmalade's that first night, he said they were bonfiring at Shell Shores the next afternoon. He didn't even ask if I wanted to meet them, just assumed I'd be there.

Derived terms[edit]



  1. ^ bō̆n-fīr, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  2. ^ bōn, n.(1)”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  3. ^ fīr, n.”, in MED Online, Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 2007.
  4. 4.0 4.1 bonfire, n.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021; bonfire, n.”, in Lexico,; Oxford University Press, 2019–2022.
  5. ^ James A. H. Murray [et al.], editors (1884–1928), “Bonfire”, in A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (Oxford English Dictionary), volumes I (A–B), London: Clarendon Press, →OCLC, page 985, column 1.
  6. ^ bonfire, v.”, in OED Online Paid subscription required, Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, December 2021.

Further reading[edit]