“Bunkum” As A Superlative

bunkumIn searching through Newspapers.com for early uses the word “bunkum,” one of our state’s greatest (perhaps the greatest?) contributions to the English language, I found an interesting article from the Philadelphia World reprinted in the Asheboro Southern Citizen of July 26, 1839.

Regular readers of our “This Month in North Carolina History” series remember that “bunkum” grew out of a 1820 speech by Felix Walker in the U.S. House of Representatives when he said he was “speaking for Buncombe.” While initially ascribed to overblown and empty political speech, we now know it to refer to any sort of nonsensical claim.

But in the 1839 article, bunkum is used as a superlative:

BUNKUM
Many of our readers have doubtless heard of this used as a superlative, without knowing its origin. Thus a buncum horse or buncum fellow, which means a horse or fellow of superior quality is frequently used in some parts of the country, and occasionally heard in all. It is a corruption of Buncombe, the name of the largest and most westerly county of North Carolina. As this county is larger than any three or four others in the State, the North Carolinians have long used it as a standard of comparison; and therefore when they wish to designate any thing as particularly large, or excelling, they say it as as large as, or equal to Buncombe, which they pronounce Bunkum.

Unfortunately for our friends in Asheville, who no doubt would have preferred to have this more positive use of their county name widely adopted, I don’t think anyone today would want to be called a “bunkum fellow.”

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