Why Do We Say...?

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“History is more or less bunk.” Most readers of this magazine, not to mention its editors, will disagree with Henry Ford’s famous assessment, but it is hard to argue with his choice of words, for bunk is a classic Americanism.

Stemming from a great nineteenth-century debate in the House of Representatives, bunk has gone on to enjoy a long and useful life. For instance, soon after Barney’s opened its doors in New York City in 1923, the clothing store plugged its wares with the slogan “No bunk. No junk. No imitations.” More recently Paul R. Charron, CEO of Liz Claiborne, Inc., told The Wall Street Journal : “There’s an element of art in this business. But this idea that 90% of what we do is art and 10% is science is bunk.”

Bunk as a synonym for nonsense or claptrap is one of those rare words whose origins can be traced to a particular person at a particular time. The person was Felix Walker (1753–1828), who represented western North Carolina in the House of Representatives from 1817 to 1823. The time was February 25, 1820, when the House was considering the most divisive issue of the day: whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state.

It was nearing five o’clock when Representative Walker rose to address the House. By this time most members were weary and didn’t want to hear yet another speech—and certainly not one from “old oil jug,” as Walker was sometimes called because of his garrulous orations. But Walker begged to be allowed to proceed, saying that his constituents expected him to speak. “I shall not be speaking to the House but to Buncombe,” he said, referring to the most important county in his district. Walker persisted, according to most accounts, in delivering a long, rambling, and completely irrelevant speech.

Buncombe entered the language almost immediately, popping up in such phrases as to talk (or speak ) for buncombe (or bunkum ). As early as 1828 “talking to Bunkum” was characterized in Niles’ Register as “an old and common saying at Washington, when a member of congress is making one of those hum-drum and unlistened to ‘long talks’ that have lately become so fashionable.” Thomas Chandler Haliburton devoted an entire chapter to “Bunkum” in the second volume of The Attaché; or, Sam Slick in England (1844). In Haliburton’s telling, Sam Slick, an itinerant Yankee clockmaker, explained that “when a critter talks for talk sake, jist to have a speech in the paper to send home, and not for any other airthly puppus but electioneering, our folks call it Bunkum .”

Bunk , the modern, clipped form of the word, emerged toward the end of the nineteenth century. The earliest example in The Oxford English Dictionary comes from George Ade’s More Fables (1900): “He surmised that the Bunk was about to be Handed to him.” This was followed by debunk, debunker , and debunking ( OED , 1923), which continue to see service.

Despite his reputation, Felix Walker should not be written off as just a windbag. A true pioneer, he was one of the axmen who helped Daniel Boone cut the Cumberland Trail to Kentucky in 1775. Wounded seriously in an Indian attack near Boonesborough, he recovered to fight in the Revolution and was a state legislator before being elected to the House of Representatives. As for Buncombe County—named for another Revolutionary soldier, Col. Edward Buncombe—its county seat is Asheville, forever memorialized by a native son, Thomas Wolfe, in one of America’s greatest novels, the largely autobiographical Look Homeward, Angel (1929).

So Buncombe escapes with considerable honor from the derivative bunk .

Hugh Rawson