In So Many Words

Info-Comics by Larry Paros

Behind That Bunk and Hokum

You won't find his name in the history books. He championed no causes. No bill bears his name. Rarely did he take to the floor to air his thoughts. But his impact on American politics is still felt.

He's Felix Walker, a mediocre and undistinguished political figure who served in Congress from 1817-1823. His one shining moment occurred during the heated debate on the Missouri Compromise, when the obscure legislator suddenly stepped forward and gave a speech so long and so boring as to empty the chambers. Hell-bent and determined to be heard, even though he had nothing to say, his words rang emptily through the great hall.

No one remembered the point of his rambling discourse. No one cared. The only thing that stuck in people's minds were his introductory comments, "I am bound to make a speech for Buncomb," a North Carolina county in the district he represented.

Over time, Buncomb mutated into bunkum, an integral part of our language, a word identified with empty or insincere talk — especially that of politicians currying the favor of their constituents.

Eight years later, hoax wed bunkum, begetting hokum which also went on to become synonymous with "nonsense." By 1900, bunkum had been shortened to bunk.

Bunk and hokum then went on together to establish themselves as the hallmarks of elected officials everywhere.