Bunk is short for bunkum, which in turn is an alteration of Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. In the year 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or a free state, was being hotly debated in Congress. Near the end of the debate and amidst calls from the floor to have a vote, Felix Walker, the representative from Buncombe rose to speak. Walker launched into an irrelevant and seemingly interminable speech. When asked to desist, he replied, “I am talking for Buncombe,” and continued on.1

Within a few years, this had entered into slang, from the 27 September 1828 Niles’ Weekly Register:

This is cantly called “talking to Bunkum.”2

By 1850, bunkum had become a synonym for political hot air and had wafted across the Atlantic, from the 24 January Times of London:

Conventions, rights of independence, caucuses, agitation, and whatever else may be implied by the American expression “bunkum.”3

By the turn of the 20th century, the term had been clipped to bunk, from George Ade’s More Fables of 1900:

He surmised that the Bunk was about to be Handed to him.4

Interestingly, the word bunco, meaning a cheat or swindle, is not from the same source. It more likely comes from the Spanish variant of three-card monte called banca.5

1John Russell Bartlett, Dictionary of Americanisms (New York: Bartlett and Welford, 1848), 54-55;
William Safire, Safire’s New Political Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1993), 90.

2Oxford English Dictionary, cantly, adv.2, 2nd Edition, 1989, Oxford University Press, accessed 25 Dec 2008 <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50032698>.

3OED2, buncombe, bunkum, <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50029362>.

4OED2, bunk, n.4, <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50029427>.

5OED2, bunco, n., <http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/50029360>.

(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Safire’s New Political Dictionary)

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