Buncombe, bunkum, bunk…. debunk!

” ‘Bunk’ already had a fascinating history in American usage before [William E. Woodward‘s 1923 novel by that name] appeared. In its nonsensical meaning, ‘bunk’ is a shortened form of ‘bunkum.’ That word goes back to 1820, when Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina, gave a long, irrelevant speech on the floor. He admitted to his colleagues, ‘I shall not be speaking to the House, but to Buncombe,’ a county in his home district.

” ‘Speaking to Buncombe’ then entered political parlance to refer to pointless oratory. In the late 1830s, that expression got shortened to ‘speaking (or talking) Bunkum,’ using a playful alternative spelling for ‘Buncombe.’ Only in the 1840s did ‘bunkum’ begin to stand on its own to mean ‘claptrap,’ especially of the political kind.

” ‘Bunkum’ then got clipped to ‘bunk’ by the late 19th century. The humorist Finley Peter Dunne used it in 1893, when a character assesses two replicas of Irish villages at the Chicago World’s Fair. One of them, he says, ‘is th’ real Irish village,’ while ‘th’ other one from Donegal is a sort of bunk.’

“Thomas Edison was widely quoted as saying ‘Religion is all bunk,’ causing such an uproar in 1910 that he was forced to clarify that his quarrel wasn’t with the existence of God. Henry Ford, arguing against U.S. involvement in World War I in 1916, notoriously told an interviewer, ‘History is more or less bunk.’

“By the time Woodward wrote ‘Bunk,’ the slang term was well entrenched. But Woodward didn’t coin ‘debunk.’ Newspaper databases now reveal earlier uses, such as a 1915 article in the New York Sun profiling Arthur S. Hoffman, a founder of the American Legion: ‘And yet in his quiet, emphatic way he kept boring and boring in a convincing manner, debunked and denuded of all that was not fact.’

“Still, Woodward’s novel undoubtedly introduced ‘debunking’ into mainstream use, and that’s no bunk.”

— From “What ‘Debunking’ Owes to a 1923 Novel and Buncombe County, N.C.” by Ben Zimmer in the Wall Street Journal (Jan. 4, 2019)

“Bunkum” as a superlative? Nicholas Graham checks it out. And William Safire notes its contribution to “hokum.”

The rise and fall of ‘a long time between drinks’

“Mr. Edison’s phonograph preserves a conversation for 100 years. But conversations can be preserved that long without a phonograph. For instance, there is the celebrated conversation between the Governor of North Carolina and the Governor of South Carolina….”

— From Daily Alta California, Dec. 26, 1887 (via Louisville Courier-Journal)

How many people today would recognize this once world-famous expression, much less any of its numerous origin stories?  

Not many, the Google Ngram Viewer suggests. 


Wrights weren’t only inventors on Outer Banks

On this day in 1906: A decade after Guglielmo Marconi of Italy sent the first radio signal, Reginald Fessenden makes the first voice transmission. From a station in Brant Rock, Mass., he broadcasts to ships at sea a program of two musical selections (including his own violin rendition of “O, Holy Night”), a Scripture reading and a short talk.

Fessenden, a native of Canada who had been Thomas Edison’s chief chemist, laid the groundwork for his breakthrough during two years’ research on the Outer Banks; barely a dozen miles away, the Wright Brothers were preparing to fly at Kitty Hawk.

A storm almost sank the Fessenden expedition on the way to Roanoke Island. Conditions continued to be harsh — crew members often had to wear mosquito netting — but 50-foot transmission towers were erected on Roanoke and Hatteras.

Reg Fessenden was considered by at least one contemporary scientist to be “the greatest wireless inventor of the age — greater than Marconi.” But the question of who would profit from radio was complex and treacherous, and Fessenden lost out in extended, bitter litigation over patent rights.


Edison liked nature but thought ‘Man is a fool’

On this day in 1918: Concluding a rustic road trip that began nine days ago in Pittsburgh, inventor Thomas Edison, automaker Henry Ford, tiremaker Harvey Firestone and naturalist John Burroughs check into Asheville’s Grove Park Inn.

The celebrity nature-seekers, who camped in tents by the mountain roads, were delayed along the way by crowds of admirers. In Weaverville, Edison declined calls for a speech but answered the Asheville Citizen’s request for a comment on the world war: “Man’s foolishness. That’s all you can make out of it. Man is a fool.”