Wednesday, January 23, 2013

This is Not a Bunch of Bunk

Earlier this month, Wayne State University's Word Warriors released its fourth annual list of "eminently useful words that should be brought back to enrich our language." Included in their list of "top 10 words worth reviving" is the word buncombe.

Buncombe: Rubbish; nonsense; empty or misleading talk. What a relief to have the election over -- that great festival of buncombe that so distracted the nation for months.

The phrase "that's a bunch of bunk" was so common in my youth that I never really gave much thought to where it cam from. When it popped up on the Word Warriors' list, I decided to find out. Here is what I learned about the etymology:

buncombe (n.) see bunk (n.2). bunkum (n.) variant of Buncombe. bunk (n.2) "nonsense," 1900, short for bunkum, phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. The usual story (by 1841) of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates, supposedly on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker (1753-1828) began what promised to be a "long, dull, irrelevant speech," and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. "I shall not be speaking to the House," he confessed, "but to Buncombe." Bunkum has been American English slang for "nonsense" since 1841 (from 1838 as generic for "a U.S. Representative's home district"). MR. WALKER, of North Carolina, rose then to address the Committee on the question [of Missouri statehood]; but the question was called for so clamorously and so perseveringly that Mr. W. could proceed no farther than to move that the committee rise. [Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 16th Congress, 1st Session, p. 1539]

I wish the Warriors would have included a bit about the etymology in their definition; it is as fascinating as the word is useful.

To see the other 9 words that should be revived as well as a list of weekly words, please go to:

Etymology via Online Etymology Dictionary

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