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Bunkum: An Uncommon Word with a Definitive History

Bunkum is a peculiar word that's all but retired in American English but is still favored by journalists in the UK and Australia.

"It will mostly be pointless and pretentious bunkum," writes Kervyn Cloete, about dissenters of the 2017 film Phantom Thread. A recent headline in The Sydney Morning Herald reads, "Why wearing black on the red carpet is bunkum". Durham Chief Constable Michael Barton used the term to describe the ineptitude of Police Scotland in a recent botched investigation. "They could have just told me a load of old bunkum and I'd have to write it down and hand it on to somebody who's investigating," he said.

Clearly, bunkum has a negative connotation. Merriam-Webster defines it as "insincere or foolish talk; nonsense". Its etymology stems from a single incident.

Democratic-Republican U.S. Congressman Felix Walker, of North Carolina, unintentionally brought the word into the lexicon. In 1820, Walker lobbied to speak on behalf of his constituents as Congress discussed the Missouri Compromise. However, the issue at hand did not directly affect his constituents in Buncombe County.

Still, he delivered a long-winded speech, which his fellow Congressmen deemed unnecessary and irrelevant. Despite cries and pleads for him to end his speech, he continued. The Missouri Compromise was eventually passed, leading to agreements between pro- and anti-slavery segments of Congress.

Additionally, Congressmen began using buncombe to describe meaningless political rhetoric. As the word gained popularity beyond Congress, the spelling shifted to bunkum.

Much later, bunkum was shortened to bunk. The meaning remained intact despite the other definitions of bunk that circulated. Bunk as its most popularly knownÔøΩ one part of a multi-tiered bedÔøΩ was likely derived from the word bunker.

Though bunkum has a straightforward origin story, there's still one other theory about its etymology. Penn State's Language Log offered an alternative option in 2006. The piece suggests bunkum was derived from Buanchumadh, an Irish and Scots-Gaelic term. Buanchumadh is defined as "perpetual invention, endless composition, a long made-up story, a shaggy dog tale".

This connection was discovered by Daniel Cassidy, who researched a phenomenon known as creative etymology. However, in the same Language Log article, fellow etymologist Jim McCloskey doubts the claim that bunkum's origins are tied to anything other than American politics.

"if this were an actual word of the language, it would mean something like ÔøΩperpetual composing'. It's a long way from that to a sense close to that of English ÔøΩstory'," McCloskey said. He goes on to suggest that Buanchumadh doesn't appear in any published dictionaries and Cassidy doesn't provide any additional references for further research.

Though so many English words have disputable origins, it seems bunkum has a definitive start and, in the U.S. at least, has a definitive end. Bunkum isn't used often as we have a robust list of synonyms to choose from: baloney, bull, rubbish, crap, hooey, garbage, foolishness, and hogwash are just a few.

As the language evolves, it seems bunkum is solidifying its place in American history and staying there.