In 1820, Felix Walker, who represented Buncombe County, North Carolina, in the U.S. House of Representatives, rose to address the question of admitting Missouri as a free or slave state. This was his first attempt to speak on this subject after nearly a month of solid debate and right before the vote was to be called. Allegedly, to the exasperation of his colleagues, Walker insisted on delivering the long and wearisome speech. He explained that he wasn't speaking to congress, but "to Buncombe." He was shouted down by his colleagues. His persistent effort made "buncombe" (later respelled "bunkum") a synonym for meaningless political claptrap and later for any kind of nonsense. Although he was unable to make the speech in front of Congress it was still published in a Washington newspaper.
The term became a joke and metaphor in Washington, then entered common usage; see discussion on talk page.
- Our readers have, perhaps, often heard of ‘speaking to Buncombe,’ by which phrase is signified a speech not intended or expected to have any influence on those to whom it is addressed, but designed for the speaker’s constituents. It originated with a representative from North Carolina, who came from the county of Buncombe, and who being asked, one day, why he continued to speak to empty benches, ‘O!’ he replied, ‘I am speaking to Buncombe.’
- Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, 1838-12-15
- (slang) Senseless talk; nonsense; a piece of nonsense (countable).
- (Washington, DC) Any bombastic political posturing or an oratorical display not accompanied by conviction; speechmaking designed for show or public applause. [1820s]
- For usage examples of this term, see the citations page.
- See also Wikisaurus:nonsense