- Paul Anthony Jones
(n.) nonsense, balderdash
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 “complete nonsense”) might come as little surprise. But the fact is that bunkum owes its existence to a tediously lengthy political speech delivered by US Congressman Felix Walker in 1820.
Born in Virginia in 1753, Walker was elected to Congress in 1817 as representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina. He spent a total of six years in the House, during which time 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—in late 1819.
The debate rumbled on for several inconclusive months, until finally, just before the decisive vote was due to be taken, Congressman Walker stood to address the house on 25 February 1820. He went on to deliver a lengthy, rambling, and largely irrelevant 5,000-word speech—which, thanks to the wonders of the internet, you can now torture yourself with here.
To put that into perspective, Walker’s speech was around 1,000 words longer than the entire role of Hamlet. It went on, and on, and on. And on. And, apparently, on.
His exasperated colleagues repeatedly shouted him down and yelled at him to desist, but, undeterred, he continued talking and proudly explained that he was not, “speaking to the House, but to Buncombe.”
Out of everything that he said that day, it was this pithy explanation that proved to be the most significant: soon, saying or doing something “for Buncombe” slipped into American slang to mean “doing something purely to please other people”. By the mid-1800s, it was being so widely used that its original spelling Buncombe was lost, replaced by a newly-simplified form, bunkum, that ultimately became a byword for political claptrap, empty promises, and eventually utter nonsense.
The clipped form bunk followed in the early 1900s, and we’ve been debunking things since 1923. Felix Walker, meanwhile, is now commemorated on a plaque in his home county of Buncombe for, quite rightly, giving a “new meaning to the word.”
Image credit: Historical Markers