February 1820: Bunkum

This Month in North Carolina History

Asheville and the Land of the Sky tourist brochure

On February 25, 1820, during the contentious debate over the Missouri Compromise, Representative Felix Walker from North Carolina rose to speak before Congress. Walker’s speech was rambling, had little relevance to the immediate debate, and several members tried to cut him off. Walker refused to yield the floor, informing his colleagues that his speech was not intended for Congress, but for his constituents at home in Buncombe County. His statement was reprinted in a Washington paper the next day and the phrase “speaking for Buncombe” began to be used by other Congressmen and by journalists describing frivolous, self-serving speeches.

The word “buncombe,” often misspelled as “bunkum,” soon came to refer to any sort of spurious or questionable statement. The word must have been widely used, for when it first appeared in a dictionary in 1848, bunkum was said to be a “very useful and expressive word, which is now as well understood as any in our language.” By the 20th-century, the abbreviated version “bunk,” meaning nonsense or silliness, began to appear in speech and in print. In 1916 Henry Ford was quoted as saying “History is more or less bunk.”

Asheville, North Carolina, in the “land of the sky,” is the seat of Buncombe County. The image shown here is from a tourist brochure published by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce in 1922 .


Suggestions for Further Reading

Archibald Henderson, “Man Who Gave Us ‘Bunkum’ Deserves More of Historians.” Durham Herald-Sun, April 13, 1941. In North Carolina Collection clipping file through 1975 : biography, pp. 729-730

John Russell Bartlett, A Dictionary of Americanisms: A Glossary of Words and Phrases Usually Regarded as Peculiar to the United States. New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848.

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