Buncombe, North Carolina, Usa
From Bermuda, we head a little over a thousand miles eastwards, returning to the mainland United States in order to hear a rambling political speech so unnecessary and tedious that it gave us a whole new word for ‘incoherent nonsense’.
The fact that there’s any kind of etymological connection between politics and long-winded speeches (or, for that matter, between politics and a word meaning ‘incoherent nonsense’) might come as little surprise. But the fact is that the word bunkum, or bunk, owes its existence to an insanely tedious speech delivered by US Congressman Felix Walker in 1820.
Where is Buncombe, North Carolina, Usa? – Buncombe, North Carolina, Usa Map – Buncombe, North Carolina, Usa Map Download Free Photo Gallery
Born in Virginia in 1753, Walker was elected to Congress in 1817 as the representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina. He spent a total of six years in the House, during which time, in late 1819, Congress was tasked with debating the so-called Missouri Question: namely, whether the territory of Missouri should be admitted into the Union as a free or a slave state. The debate rumbled on for several inconclusive months, until finally, on 25 February 1820, just before the decisive vote was due to be taken and the matter put to bed once and for all, Congressman Walker stood to address the House. He went on to deliver a lengthy, rambling and largely irrelevant five-thousand-word speech. To put it into perspective, Walker’s speech was almost as long as the entire role of King Lear.
It went on, and on, and on. And on. And, apparently, on. As the minutes ticked by, Walker’s exasperated colleagues repeatedly shouted him down and yelled at him to desist but, undeterred, he continued talking. With a proud nod to his constituents back home in North Carolina, he explained that he was not ‘speaking to the House, but to Buncombe’.
Oddly – and perhaps indicative of how unnecessary the rest of Walker’s speech was – out of everything that he had to say that day, it was that pithy explanation that proved to be the most significant. Before long, saying or doing something ‘for Buncombe’ had slipped into political American slang to mean ‘doing something purely to please other people’.
By the mid 1800s, this expression was being used so widely that its original spelling, Buncombe – and its geographical connection to North Carolina – was lost, replaced by a newly simplified phonetic spelling, bunkum. It was this that became a byword for political claptrap, empty promises and, eventually, utter nonsense.
Bunkum (American) Talking for taking’s sake, claptrap, gas, tall talk; orig. insincere political discussion. Hence That’s all bunkum = that’s all nonsense! The thing’s absurd!
A clipped form, bunk, followed in the early 1900s, and we’ve been debunking things by disproving or exposing them since 1923.
As for Congressman Walker, as well as earning himself and his congressional seat a place in the dictionary, he is still today commemorated on a plaque outside the town in North Carolina. ‘Felix Walker, Revolutionary Officer,’ it reads. ‘Member of Congress, 181723, where in talking for Buncombe County, he gave new meaning to the word.’
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