Hopefully Not Too Much Bunk in This History

Rep. Felix Walker represented North Carolina in Congress from 1817 through December 1823. Walker hailed from Buncombe County in the western part of the state, named for Edward Buncombe, a plantation owner and colonel in the Revolutionary Army. Asheville is the county seat.

Prior to his sojourn in Congress, Walker became friends with Daniel Boone with whom he explored Kentucky in 1774 and 1775. Born in Virginia on July 10, 1753, Walker was also a member of the North Carolina Legislature from 1799 through 1806.

During the tail end of the almost month-long 1820 debate over the admission of Missouri as a slave or free state, Walker rose to address the issue.

His speech regarding the Missouri issue, preserved in Volume 5, Issue 759 of the City of Washington Gazette, May 11, 1820, is a stem-winder of prodigious length.

Walker’s windy ovation, coming just as the House was preparing to vote on the question, engendered vocal remonstrations by his colleagues, including repeated  urgings to conclude his remarks since no one was paying attention.

“I’m talking for Buncombe,” Walker retorted. Or, in some accounts, “I’m speaking to Buncombe.”

As often happens in politics, a particular event becomes synonymous for a type of behavior.

Over time, Buncombe morphed into bunkum which has come to mean “claptrap” or “empty talk.”

Among its synonyms are “crock,” “flapdoodle” and “hooey.”

Bunkum then was shortened to bunk.

Henry Ford used the word famously in the sentence “History is more or less bunk,” which although widely quoted usually doesn’t offer the context of Ford’s remark.

This from Geoffrey Upward’s 1979 book, A Home For Our Heritage, about the building of the Henry Ford Museum:

“What (Ford) meant and explained many times in later years was that written history reflected little of people’s day-to-day existence.

‘History as it is taught in the schools deals largely with … wars, major political controversies, territorial extensions and the like.

‘When I went to our American history books to learn how our forefathers harrowed (tilled) the land, I discovered that the historians knew nothing about harrows. Yet our country depended more on harrows than on guns or great speeches.

“I thought a history which excluded harrows and all the rest of daily life is bunk and I think so yet.’ “

A 1920 author on the subject of bunk felt there should be an antidote and added “debunk” to the American lexicon. 

                                                                    –From Houghton Mifflin and various other sources.


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