April 30, 2013

Case File #013.04.30: BUNK

In American English, the noun bunk has essentially two meanings, one being “a narrow shelflike bed that is typically one in a tier of such beds” and the other “nonsense.” Not surprisingly, the history behind the first meaning is a bit of a snoozefest: derived from the word bunker, the term was coined in the mid-eighteenth century as a designation for the space-saving beds and benches used in military bunkers. But the story behind the second meaning of bunk is, like the meaning itself, far less soporific. It all started in 1820 during a debate in the United States Congress over the Missouri Compromise. In the midst of the proceedings, a congressman named Felix Walker, who hailed from Buncombe County in North Carolina, was given an opportunity to speak. After he had droned on for a considerable length of time, his fellow congressmen entreated him to stop, but he emphatically refused, proclaiming that he had every right “to speak for Buncombe.” His congressional peers did eventually convince him to give up the floor, of course, but because the bulk of his speech had been fatuous and meaningless, bunkum (a simplification of Buncombe) quickly became a popular synonym for political claptrap. By the turn of the century, the term was often shortened to bunk, and it was also now used in reference to any kind of nonsense, not just the more abundant political type.

©2013 Michael R. Gates

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