Carolina Curious: Felix Walker Talks To Buncombe (And Sparks A New Word)
Earlier this year, we aired a Carolina Curious edition about the origins of the word “Cackalacky.”
We heard some great feedback about the story. But listener Paul Endry caught us using another word in the piece that has deep ties to North Carolina. Here’s the passage from the original story:
[Paul] Jones says he's heard it all. Some have claimed Cackalacky is a derivative of a Cherokee word. Others suggest it's an Americanization of the German word for cockroach – "Kakerlake." But Jones thinks these theories are bunk.
That last word, "bunk" – which is old slang for "nonsense" – isn't particularly common these days. But it turns out it has uniquely North Carolinian roots.
To help us get to the bottom the term, we called up Catawba College Professor of History and American Cultural Studies Gary Freeze. He says the origins of “bunk” can be found in the speeches of U.S. Rep. Felix Walker, right around the time of the Missouri Compromise Debates of 1820.
“The very day they seemed to have agreed on the Compromise, and everyone was ready to vote, Walker stood up and said he wanted to make a speech," Freeze explains. "And what Walker said to them is that they didn’t need to worry about what he was going to say. He was going to ‘talk to Buncombe.’”
The reference, of course, is to Buncombe County, North Carolina, home to Asheville. Felix Walker was the congressman representing the area, and he knew he needed to get on the Congressional Record if he wanted to get reelected.
But his peers were ready to go home, and they weren’t too happy about this.
"Apparently, they drowned him out with 'Question! Question!’ and basically voted on the Missouri Compromise," Freeze says. "It’s unclear if he ever made the speech. But very quickly, the word ‘Buncombe’ became a reference to worthless talking in congress.”
This story continued to spread throughout the 19th century, at some point being simplified to "bunkum." And according to Freeze, as the word became more popular, the geography became more ephemeral.
“The references always seem to be that it was an object of a preposition, that you were talking 'for Buncombe,' or you were talking 'to Buncombe.' It was a destination. And the destination was kind of mythical. And it went beyond the boundaries of North Carolina.”
As these things go, the word evolved and got remixed. Eventually, “bunkum” became “bunk.”
If you wanted to set the record straight, you could “debunk” something.
Or, if you needed another word for nonsense, you’d combine the words “bunkum” and “hocus-pocus” to get the term “hokum.”
But here’s the thing: according to Freeze, there’s another, more local usage of “Buncombe” that shocked even him.
"Right before the American Civil War, there was a second definition of 'Buncombe' that North Carolinians used," he says. "It referenced the size of Buncombe County as a way to describe how something was big, like a tomato or a potato.”
So, for example, if you manufactured a widget that was “the best thing this side of Buncombe,” you were saying your widget was the best around, at least until you got to Buncombe County.
And then Freeze found this reference with Triad ties.
“There was an argument in Greensboro in 1843 about whether something in their congressional district 'belonging to Buncombe,' he says. "Not just a concept. In other words, I think Buncombe had dual meanings in North Carolina as being a place that was kind of mythical and strange at the same time that it was referencing the hot air idea.”
Even though the word “bunk” isn’t used much anymore, the fact that a little-known congressman from North Carolina could shape the language of the day, well, you might say that’s the neatest thing this side of Buncombe.