A few days ago, I posted a brief note about John McCain's recent "claptrap" about the United States being a "Christian nation." And yesterday, in a conversation with a friend, I mentioned Asheville, North Carolina, where I was born. I wish those two events had happened in reverse order, because then I might have used a better word than "claptrap": bu******.
To explain, I will take the lazy blogger's approach and reprint a piece I wrote for my local newspaper a few years ago.
From Buncombe to Bunk
In 1816, the people of western North Carolina elected Felix Walker to represent them in the U.S. House of Representatives. Walker was a colorful figure. He had traveled west with Daniel Boone to help establish the community of Boonesboro, Kentucky, and fought in the American Revolution and several Indian wars. He was a farmer, a merchant, and a land speculator. For several years, he was successful in state politics. Then, at the age of 63, he ran for Congress as a Republican (a Jeffersonian Republican--the modern Republican party wouldn’t form for almost forty years).
Although he was reelected twice, his career in Washington was less than spectacular. Realizing that he needed to keep reminding the folks back home that he was on the job, he made a speech in 1820 that ended up putting a new word into the English language.
The occasion was the congressional debate over the admission of Missouri as a state. The issue of slavery entered the debate when a northern congressman tried to amend the Missouri statehood bill so as to make slavery illegal there. Walker had little to say about what would become known as the Missouri Compromise, but he knew that his constituents expected him to say something. So on February 25, 1820, he rose to address the House.
Walker talked and talked, but said next to nothing. His colleagues, weary with the debate, urged him to sit down, but he kept going. Finally he admonished his detractors by saying that he was not speaking to them, he was speaking for the folks in Buncombe, one of the counties in his district. (Asheville is the largest city in Buncombe County, named for Colonel Edward Buncombe, a Revolutionary War soldier from the area who had been captured and died while still a prisoner.)
When people read the speech, reprinted in a Washington newspaper, they agreed that he had been “speaking for Buncombe,” and the phrase soon became popular for any frivolous, irrelevant, nonsensical, or questionable remark. By 1850, the word was often spelled “bunkum.” By the early twentieth century, it had been shortened to “bunk.”
Walker’s speech worked, by the way, at least for a while. He was re-elected in 1820, but lost his bid for a fourth term in 1822.
One of the most famous uses of the word “bunk” is, unfortunately, one that I as a history professor have to hear occasionally from disgruntled students: Henry Ford’s comment that “History is bunk.”
Actually, that’s a misquotation. In 1916, a reporter for the Chicago Tribune questioned Ford about his opposition to building up America’s military strength in light of the war in Europe. The reporter pointed out that, a century earlier, only England’s powerful military kept Napoleon out of Britain. “I don’t know whether Napoleon did or did not try to get across there and I don’t care. It means nothing to me. History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we make today.”
Cultural critic Robert Fulford was perhaps being a bit generous when he wrote that Ford (who was actually something of a history buff) “thought that devotion to the past prevents us from grappling with the present and may encourage us to make war out of historical grievance. In 1914 all the European leaders knew history, Ford said, yet they blundered into the worst war ever.”
Still, I can tell my students that Henry Ford didn’t really say “History is bunk,” and he didn’t really mean that history is (to quote Roget) “balderdash, blather, claptrap, drivel, garbage, idiocy, nonsense, piffle, poppycock, rigmarole, rubbish, tomfoolery, trash, twaddle,” words that might be used in place of the “bunkum” inspired by Felix Walker.
The above first appeared in the Cartersville Daily Tribune News, August 1, 2004. Any of the listed words in that last paragraph could apply equally well to McCain's pronouncement.