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

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Jan 18 15:05:02 EST 2017

A citation dated September 27, 1828 in the "Niles' Register" does a
thorough job explaining "talking to Bunkum" and "talk to Bunkum". This
citation was listed in the OED and provides interesting background.
"Bunkum" was not yet a noun.


[Begin excerpt - please double-check]
"Talking to Bunkum!" This is an old and common
saying at Washington, when a member of congress
is making one of those hum-drum and unlistened-to "long
talks" which have lately become so fashionable---not with
the hope of being heard in the house, but to afford an
enlightened representative a pretence for sending a copy
of his speech to his constituents, the making of many
which have been paid for, as a tailor would be for making
a coat, or the hatter a hat. We say his speech, for it is
just as much so as his hat, and purchased with his money,
if not gratuitously manufactured by the hand of a friend.
This is cantly called "talking to Bunkum:" an "honorable
gentleman" long ago, having said that he was not speaking
to the house, but to the people of a certain county in
his district, which, in local phrase, he called "Bunkum."
But these are not the only description of persons who
"talk to Bunkum"—for the most intelligent and amusing,
as well as the most ignorant and foolish members
of legislative bodies do it—but the object of both is
to misrepresent facts.
[End excerpt]


On Wed, Jan 18, 2017 at 2:21 PM, Ben Zimmer <bgzimmer at gmail.com> wrote:
> Other accounts identify the N.C. congressman as Felix Walker.
> 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

More information about the Ads-l mailing list