In a word: buncombe

September 15, 2014|By John E. McIntyre | The Baltimore Sun

Each week The Sun's John McIntyre presents a relatively obscure but evocative word with which you may not be familiar, another brick to add to the wall of your vocabulary. This week's word: 


Many of the words featured here are of Latin or Greek origin, but America has made contributions to English, too, and today we look at the origins of a valuable one. 

We can pinpoint the origins of this word. During the debate on the Missouri Question in the Sixteenth Congress, the Hon. Felix Walker of Buncombe County, North Carolina, took the floor of the House of Representatives to speak at length to no particular purpose. When his fellow representatives impatiently called for the question, he insisted on continuing because he was bound to "make a speech for Buncombe."

Thus, in its original sense, buncombe (also current in the phonetic spelling bunkum) represents speech intended primarily to please a constituency, speech or action rising not from conviction but rather "to make a show for the electors," the OED says.

It speedily expanded its sense to include all manner of empty oratory, linked to the evocative synonyms claptrap and humbug. It was one of H.L. Mencken's favorite words; he titled one of the collections of his articles A Carnival of Buncombe.

Today, regrettably, it has effectively been supplanted by the truncation bunk

Example: From a 1958 Sports Illustrated article on Jimmy Jones, the trainer of Calumet Farm: "He stated, in effect, that what he had just heard was a lot of buncombe and that what he wanted around there was not talk, but somebody to rake the buncombe out of the walking rings."

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