The Grammarphobia Blog

When etymology is bunkum

Q: Your article about Thomas Nast and “nasty” says the belief that the former is  responsible for the latter is bunkum. My question: Who’s responsible for “bunkum”?

A: We can thank Felix Walker, a 19th-century congressman from North Carolina, whose district included Buncombe County.

Walker made a long-winded speech during the discussions that led to the 1820 passage of the Missouri Compromise, an agreement between pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the 16th Congress.

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary describes the origin of “bunkum”:

“The use of the word originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress, when the member from this district rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe.”

The word “buncombe,” now usually spelled “bunkum,” came to mean empty, insincere, or foolish talk.

When the usage first showed up, according to citations in the OED, it referred to political oratory “to please or gull a constituency.”

The dictionary’s first citation is from an 1828 issue of the Niles Weekly Register: “This is cantly called ‘talking to Bunkum.’ ” (The Baltimore magazine was founded by Hezekiah Niles.)

In the mid-19th century, the term came to mean insincere political talk as well as empty or deceptive talk in general.

Here’s an 1862 example from the Saturday Review: “In short, did it signify business or ‘bunkum’ ”?

A more recent, non-OED example showed up in a 2006 posting to the Language Log about a questionable etymology in Daniel Cassidy’s book How the Irish Invented Slang.

This is how the linguist Mark Liberman summed up Cassidy’s assertion that “bunkum” is derived from a Gaelic word for a shaggy dog story: BUNKUM!

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