[Ads-l] bunkum = 'nonsense' (1838)

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 18 11:05:46 EST 2017

While "bunkum" is widely believed to be derived from an 1820 speech by
a congressman from Buncombe County, NC (he was "speaking to/for
Buncombe"), the 'nonsense' meaning of "buncombe"/"bunkum" didn't
develop until later. The OED2 entry (which hasn't been updated since
1888!) has the meaning 'political claptrap' from 1850 with pure
'humbug' attested later. Merriam-Webster gives a first date of 1845
for "bunkum," and the Online Etymology Dictionary says 1841.

Here's an example from 1838 (via Newspapers.com).

Wyoming [Pa.] Republican and Farmer's Herald, May 16, 1838, p. 3, col. 1
It is not to be expected of us that in dealing fairly with this
people, we are afraid of our own shadow, and must talk _Bunkum_ like
our neighbor, sound and fury signifying nothing.

(As HDAS notes, "bunkum" could also mean 'excellent' around the same
time, just to confuse matters.)


The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list