North Carolina politician gives us the word ‘debunk’

Posted by | February 9, 2012

The North Carolina historical marker skirts the issue diplomatically: there’s much more to the story of how Felix Walker ‘gave new meaning to the word’ than the sign is letting on.

The verb debunk means to expose or ridicule the falseness or hollowness of a myth, idea or belief. It is made up of the prefix ‘de-‘, meaning to remove, and the word ‘bunk’.

On February 25, 1820, the Missouri Question, whether Missouri should be admitted to the Union as a slave or 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, representative from Buncombe County, NC, rose to speak. And speak. Did I mention that Felix Walker spoke?

When asked by other members to desist, he replied that he was bound ‘to make a speech for Buncombe,’ and continued to hold forth.

Walker was elected as a Republican to the Fifteenth, Sixteenth, and Seventeenth Congresses, serving from 1817 to 1823. One can only wonder if his long-windedness got him hounded out of North Carolina, for he moved to Mississippi in 1824.

But he left in his wake a masterful symbol for empty talk that could not be ignored by the speakers of the language, and buncombe, actually spelled bunkum in its first recorded appearance in 1828 in “Niles’ Weekly Register,” must have been widely used. Bunkum, noted that journal, was said to be a ‘very useful and expressive word, which is now as well understood as any in our language.’ And “The Wilimington Commercial” referred in 1849 to ‘the Buncombe politicians — those who go for re-election merely.’

In George Ade’s 1900 book “More Fables in Slang” the –um ending has been dropped: “he surmised that the Bunk was about to be handed to him.’

The term debunk originated in a 1923 novel “Bunk,” by American novelist William Woodward (1874–1950), who used it to mean to take the bunk out of things. And H. L. Mencken, the sage of Baltimore and a connoisseur of the American language, entitled one of his books “A Carnival of Buncombe.”

Safire’s Political Dictionary, by William Safire, Random House, 1978
Word Myths, by David Wilton, Ivan Brunetti, Oxford University Press US, 2004

Felix+Walker Bunscombe+County+NC appalachia history+of+appalachia appalachian+history

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