“What a load of bunk!”
Nowadays, the word bunk has become such a familiar word for garbage or nonsensical language that we’ve even invented an opposite term — debunk —meaning to fact-check, or prove that something is untrue. As familiar as both those words are, however, few people know their history and the connection that bunk has to a particularly memorable Carolinian congressman.
Felix Walker was born in Hampshire, Virginia (now in West Virginia) in 1753. His family moved frequently throughout Virginia, the Carolinas, and the surrounding states in his childhood, and as a young man, Walker worked several different places throughout the region in various clerical and local government positions. In 1769, he was hired as a merchant’s clerk in Charleston, South Carolina. He then joined Daniel Boone’s company, helping to establish Boonesborough, Kentucky, in 1775, and was later named Clerk of the Court of Washington district, North Carolina, in 1775. After serving in the Revolutionary War, Walker returned to North Carolina and served in its state assembly numerous times before being elected to the 15th United States Congress as the Democratic-Republican representative for Buncombe County, North Carolina, in 1816.
Walker went on to spend a total of six years in the House of Representatives, before stepping down in 1823, five years before his death in 1828 at the age of 75. It was during his time in Congress, however, that Walker—and, by extension, Buncombe County—made their somewhat unexpected contribution to our language.
In late 1819, Congress was tasked with debating the so-called Missouri Question: namely, whether the territory of Missouri should be admitted into the Union as a free or a slave state. The debate had already rumbled on for several inconclusive months until finally, just before a decisive vote was due to be taken early the following year, Congressman Walker stood to address the house on February 25, 1820. Far from bringing the debate to a convincing, vote-swinging conclusion, however, Walker went on to deliver an impossibly lengthy and almost entirely irrelevant 5,000-word speech.
“Mr. Speaker,” he began, “I should not have risen on this question did I not believe that we are about to be plunged into a dangerous and conflicting policy wherein some of our best interests and dearest rights are deeply involved. In giving my views on this subject, I find I have to encounter difficulties that I cannot avoid.” And so Congressman Walker went on, and on, and on, with his exasperated and exhausted colleagues, keen to conclude the debate and simply move on to the vote, repeatedly shouting him down and calling for him to cease talking. Despite their protests, however, Walker continued with his speech, proudly explaining that he was not delivering his address for their benefit, but was rather making a “speech for Buncombe.”
So memorably useless and entirely unnecessary was Congressman Walker’s speech, however, that “speaking for Buncombe” soon established itself as a slangy catchphrase around the House of Representatives—while the name Buncombe itself came to be used of anything nonsensical, impractical, or wholly unwarranted. By the mid-1800s, the expression had become so widely used that its spelling began to simplify; Buncombe morphed into bunkum and was eventually shorted into bunk. The opposite term debunk eventually emerged in 1923.
As the word itself changed, however, its connection to Buncombe County, North Carolina, was lost, and both it and Felix Walker’s claim to fame were relegated to the footnotes of the dictionary. In Buncombe County itself, however, a roadside sign still commemorates Congressman Walker’s contribution to the English language: “FELIX WALKER, Revolutionary officer member of Congress, 1817-23,” it reads, “where in ‘talking for Buncombe’ (County), he gave new meaning to the word.”