In a column last month on gubernatorial, I mentioned that John Russell Bartlett had included the word in his 1848 "Dictionary of Americanisms," calling it a coinage born of "our peculiar institutions," along with caucus and bunkum.
That last word prompted a comment from reader Jay Gold:
Interesting [that] Bartlett lists "bunkum" in his list of Americanisms. I always thought the proper spelling was "buncombe", after the North Carolina county that inspired the word. Mencken, who was no slouch in such matters, spelled it that way.
In fact, Mencken listed buncombe and bunkum as alternative spellings, like ketchup and catsup. "Buncombe (usually spelled bunkum) is in all the later English dictionaries," he wrote in the 1921 edition of "The American Language." Bartlett also gave both spellings, and a one-B buncome too, for good measure.
On the origin of the word, Bartlett quoted another source:
A tedious speaker in Congress being interrupted and told it was no use to go on, for the members were all leaving the house, replied, "Never mind; I'm talking to Buncombe." Buncombe, in North Carolina, was the place he represented.
And he left the analysis of its cultural context to "Judge Halliburton of Nova Scotia":
"All over America, every place likes to hear of its members of Congress, and see their speeches; and if they don't, they send a piece to the paper, enquirin' if their member died a natural death, or was skivered with a bowie knife, for they hante seen his speeches lately, and his friends are anxious to know his fate. Our free and enlightened citizens don't approbate silent members; it don't seem to them as if Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown was right represented, unless Squashville, or Punkinsville, or Lumbertown makes itself heard and known, ay, and feared too. So every feller in bounden duty, talks, and talks big too, and the smaller the State, the louder, bigger, and fiercer its members talk.
"Well, when a critter talks for talk sake, jist to have a speech in the paper to send to home, and not for any other airthly puppus but electioneering, our folks call it Bunkum."