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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 18 13:53:14 EST 2017

In the January 1838 citation below a speech "for Bunkum" or simply
"Bunkum" referred to a speech delivered to a nearly empty chamber or
gallery. The speech was presumably filled with political posturing for

Date: January 15, 1838
Newspaper: Raleigh Register and North Carolina Gazette (Weekly Raleigh Register)
Newspaper Location: Raleigh, North Carolina
Quote Page 2, Column 1
Database: Newspapers.com

[Begin excerpt - please double check]
It was a speech for "Bunkum." There were not more than a single score
of members in the House during its delivery, which, so far as I could
gather from the few passages that I caught, as I was occasionally in
and out, was "a general gaol-delivery" of much imprisoned party
slang-wang, and pent-up loco-focoism. It will probably be found to be
the only speech of the Pennsylvania member for the session, and will
form the common stock, upon which he will canvass his "Bunkum," among
the Dutchmen at home, for his next election. After he had "done his
devour," as Mrs. Malaprop would say, the Committee rose, and "the
score" adjourned the House.
[End excerpt]


On Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 1:25 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole
<adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com> wrote:
> Here is the text of the 1834 citation about Bunkum which suggests (to
> me) a possible origin for the term:
> Date: June 12, 1834
> Newspaper: Vicksburg Whig
> Newspaper Location: Vicksburg, Mississippi
> Quote Page 4, Column 1
> Database: Newspapers.com
> (Mr. Leigh distinguished Senator from Virginia describing Mr. Benton
> of Missouri: Report from Washington Correspondent of the New Bedford
> Mercury.)
> [Begin excerpt - please double check]
> A representative here many years since, who belonged to Bunkum Co. N.
> C. was asked why he made such long speeches to deserted benches. "Oh,
> said he, I make them for my constituents, I make them for Bunkum. Many
> of Mr. Benton's speeches are made for Bunkum. Take one of these
> speeches, interlard it frequently with the words "amerikin pepil and
> amerikin Sinit, (for so he pronounces) make longer and now constant
> allusions to the Trojan horse, the Star Chamber, John Wilkes and the
> whigs of the Revolushin,' and imagine it delivered by such a man as I
> have described, and you have some notion of Mr. Senator Benton"
> [End excerpt]
> Garson
> On Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 1:01 PM, ADSGarson O'Toole
> <adsgarsonotoole at gmail.com> wrote:
>> Ben and all: There is a great citation that gives an origin story here:
>> 12 Jun 1834
>> Vicksburg Whig (Vicksburg, Mississippi)
>> https://www.newspapers.com/image/225027443/?terms=Bunkum
>> On Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 11:05 AM, Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at gmail.com> wrote:
>>> 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.)
>>> --bgz
>>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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

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