How Buncombe became a slang word for nonsense

A Bunkum stone sits in front of The Grey Stone Inn at 100 Biltmore Ave. | Photo courtesy of Flickr

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After stumbling upon this recent Reddit post, we learned an interesting fact: according to the Oxford Language’s dictionary, the slang word ‘bunkum,’ which translates to nonsense, malarky, or all-around gibberish, got its roots from a particularly rambly + pointless speech made by Buncombe County congressman Felix Walker (1817-23) in the 1820s. 

Photo courtesy of North Carolina Highway Historical Markers

Naturally, we had to investigate this more, so we checked with Heather S., the Lead Archivist at the Western Regional Archives, and it turns out that the hearsay is completely true. Congressman Walker’s infamously over-the-top speech arose during the discussions that led to the now-repealed Missouri Compromise. Apparently, Walker lobbied to speak on behalf of his Buncombe County constituents, even though the issue at hand did not directly affect them. Despite a number of Walker’s fellow congressmen begging him to stop, he continued his speech for what bystanders described as a lengthy amount of time. 

From that point on, congressmen across the country began using the word buncombe to describe meaningless political rhetoric. As the word gained more mainstream popularity, the spelling shifted to ‘bunkum.’ What’s more, according to the North Carolina Highway Historical Markers, this phrase is also the root for the more commonly used word ‘debunk,’ which was first used within 25 years of Walker’s nonsense speech. 

While the word bunkum is no longer used regularly in the states, it is still retained its use among locals in WNC, as illustrated by this Mountain Xpress opinion article titled “Burdens or bunkum?”