Bunkum

Today’s spectacular vernacular contains no foolishness or claptrap. It’s all about bunkum.

As you know, I love learning about etymology. It fascinates me to follow a word from Latin, or even earlier, through millennia as the definition evolves.

Bunkum, however, is not one of those words. It’s barely over two hundred years old, but it still holds a special place for me because it’s related to where I live.

Most of you have heard of Asheville, North Carolina. You may not know, though, that Asheville sits in Buncombe County. And, yes, if you say Buncombe, it sounds just like bunkum.

A quick history lesson. Edward Buncombe (1742-1778) made his wealth the old-fashioned way—he inherited it. In 1768, at the age of 26, he took over a 2,250 acre plantation and its slaves near the Albemarle Sound on the coast of North Carolina. He became involved in the independence movement in the colony and served as an officer in the Continental Army. Wounded and captured in the Battle of Germantown, he later died from complications from those wounds.

In 1791, North Carolina named a part of the western end of the state in his honor, the predecessor to our current Buncombe County.

Okay, enough abbreviated history. What does Edward Buncombe have to do with the word bunkum? Nothing, except the naming of Buncombe County.

Enter Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1816 through 1822. In 1820, Congress debated the famous Missouri Compromise, the decision to admit Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. Just before the vote, Walker rose to give a speech on behalf of the citizens of Buncombe.

Speeches had been going on for weeks. Everyone was exhausted and just wanted to get the vote done. And, frankly, Walker’s speech was painful. If you are curious to see how bad, it’s been preserved.

The amusing part of the story is that it wasn’t delivered in full. The other representatives shouted it down, despite Walker’s protests that he was speaking for Buncombe. And, thus, with a twist of spelling, a bunkum came to mean a meaningless political speech.

And, yes, bunk evolved from bunkum.

Whenever I hear one of our county commissioners speaking, I can’t help but think they’re representing bunkum well.

Oops. I meant Buncombe, of course.

P.S. – This came to mind because it was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day earlier this week. If you’re a word nerd like I am, you can sign up for their free daily email.

1 Comment

  1. Kathye Shuman on February 19, 2024 at 11:01 am

    I used to teach this fact to my middle schoolers in NC history class, but even 15 years ago, most of the kids had never heard the word “bunkum” or even “bunk” used in any context except when referring to beds. I do remember one child saying something to the effect “Oh , that’s what my grandpa means when he says that, I never knew.” I suspect this word is headed to the graveyard soon, most people seem to prefer other four letter words these days 🙂

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