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Across a muted background image of a skull, text read:
During the Pre-Halloween celebration of Samhain, bonfires were lit to ensure the sun would return after the long, hard winter. Often Druid priests would throw the bones of cattle into the flames & hence, ‘Bone Fire” became “Bonfire.’
Uncropped screenshots on Facebook typically indicated that the screenshot originated with an October 18 2021 post by Instagram user @granny_magick_margaret_jamison. A version uploaded by the Facebook page MoonSistersTribe on October 26 2021 bore a watermark, @tattooedbruja.
A slightly different iteration was shared on Twitter in November 2019 by writer Robert Macfarlane:
Word of the #BonfireNight: "bale-fire" – in Old English poetry, a great fire kindled in an open space ("bǽlfýra"), for purposes of celebration, signal––or funeral. Our modern word "bonfire" is a contraction of Middle English "bone-fire" ("ignis ossium" in Latin).
📷 Toa Heftiba pic.twitter.com/ga8co8LbTg
— Robert Macfarlane (@RobGMacfarlane) November 5, 2019
In November 2017, @qikipedia tweeted:
Bonfire comes from ‘bone-fire’ which relates to the Celtic feast of Samhain (Nov 1) where animal bones were burned to keep the dead at bay.
— Quite Interesting (@qikipedia) November 3, 2017
An October 27 2021 @TG4TV tweet matching Irish language words with Halloween-themed emojis listed “tine cnámh” alongside a fire emoji. Google Translate translated “tine cnámh” as “bone fire”:
— TG4TV 🎂 (@TG4TV) October 27, 2021
On Merriam-Webster.com, “bonfire” was defined as follows, with a brief dive into its etymology:
Definition of bonfire
: a large fire built in the open air
Examples of bonfire in a Sentence
Recent Examples on the Web
For an outdoor ceremony, cocktail hour, or late-night bonfire, arrange that in advance.
— Carrie Goldberg, Harper’s BAZAAR, 22 Oct. 2021
Each night’s bonfire was a balance of local beer tasting and trip planning, with Lynn, Jason, and Jason’s parents sharing invaluable insights from their own Isle Royale excursions to prepare us for our first visit.
— Stephanie Vermillion, Travel + Leisure, 17 July 2021
History and Etymology for bonfire
Middle English bonefire a fire of bones, from bon bone + fire
A separate page on the site, published on October 31 2017, was titled “The Secret History of ‘Bonfire.'” It began with information about an early, inaccurate theory of the word’s origin:
In French, bon means “good,” which has led some to believe that it is the first element of the English word bonfire—after all, a bonfire is a really good fire. British lexicographer Samuel Johnson also offered up that etymology in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language, in which he defined bonfire as “a fire made for some publick cause of triumph or exaltation,” and derived the word from the French bon and the English word fire. Noah Webster believed the same. However, the etymology was corrected in the 1890 Webster’s International Dictionary.
In a longer exploration of the origin of “bonfire,” the site explained:
The word is actually derived from Middle English bonefire, meaning literally “a fire of bones.” (Way cooler etymology, right?) The earliest appearance of the word is glossed ignis ossium—Latin for “fire of bones.” And a citation from the 15th century confirms that this is not just a learned folk-etymology.
There are a few key points in favor of the “bone fire” etymology. First, the creation posited by early lexicographers would be a somewhat unusual hybrid: exactly why a French word would be joined with an English one (the word fire is purely Anglo-Saxon) is hard to rationalize. Second, knowing that the word goes back to the 15th century, we might expect it to have evolved to boonfire, since boon (as in “boon companion”) is the English form that developed from the French bon. Third, the spelling in the word’s earliest attestation is in the form banefyre, and bane is a spelling of bone which long continued common in Scotland.
A page on Oxford English Dictionary‘s OED.com for “bonfire” noted that “etymological spelling bone-fire, Sc. bane-fire, was common down to 1760,” continuing:
†1. A fire of bones; a great fire in which bones were burnt in the open air. Obs.
(The 17th c. quotations are chiefly allusive, implying a knowledge that bon(e)fires ought to burn bones.)
†2. A fire in which to consume corpses, a funeral pile, a pyre. (The ordinary transl. of L. pyra, rogus in 16–17th c.) Obs.
3. A fire for immolation; a fire in which heretics, bibles, or proscribed books were burnt. Still familiarly applied to a great fire for burning up thorns, brushwood, or rubbish, though, as the purpose is not now specifically considered as constituting a bonfire…
A popular Halloween meme claimed that the word “bonfire” was a compound word, originally “bone fire” due to the practice of burning bones on open flames. The Merriam-Webster and Oxford English dictionaries both supported the assertion that “bonfire” represented a shortened “bone fire,” noting that the “good fire” etymological claim was corrected in the 1890 Webster’s International Dictionary.