The Bunkum of Bunkum (for Dizzy Gillespie)

BUNKUM, al. bunk: Empty oratory; humbug, nonsense, tall tales. (OED)

Buanchumadh, (pron. buan’cumah), perpetual invention, endless composition (of a story, poem, or song), a long made-up story, fig. a shaggy dog tale.

Buan-, prefix, long-lasting, enduring, perpetual, endless.
Cumadh (pron. cumah), Vn., (act of) contriving, composing, inventing, making-up; a made-up story.

Níl ann ach cumadh, it is just a made-up story. (Ó Dónaill, Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla, Irish-English Dictionary, 353)

If it were a very long made-up story, one would say in Irish: níl ann ach buanchumadh, it is just a “long, endless tale.” A similar Irish compound, buanchuimhneach, means “(someone) having a long memory.”

The Irish and Scots-Gaelic word bunkum (buanchumadh) is derived by all Anglo-American dictionaries from a shaggy-dog tale. As the story goes, during the 16th American Congress, a long-winded congressman from Buncombe County, North Carolina, spoke endlessly on a particular bill, while other members impatiently waited to vote. From then on, as the etymological bunkum goes, to talk “bunkum” meant to speak as endlessly as that long-forgotten politician from Buncombe County. (See: Bartlett, American Dictionary.)

Ironically the old congressman from Buncombe County may have been speaking Gaelic buanchumadh (pron. buan’cumah, a long made-up story) after all. North Carolina had an historic Scots-Gaelic and Irish-speaking population up until the beginning of the 20th century. The jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie’s family were African-American Gaelic speakers from North Carolina and Alabama. So Buncombe County may have been the origin of bunkum as buanchumadh, (pron. buan-cumah, “a shaggy dog tale”) after all.

“Under an enormous image of (Dizzy) Gillespie beamed on to a wall at Sprague (Hall), Yale music professor Willie Ruff salutes his old friend and explains to the audience how this musical journey began. “Dizzy used to tell me tales of how the blacks near his home in Alabama and in the Carolinas had once spoken exclusively in Scots Gaelic. He spoke of his love for Scotland…..” (The Scotsman newspaper, Sept. 25, 2005. http://living.scotsman.com/index.cfm?id=1984012005

African-American Scots-Gaelic and Irish speakers were not limited to the American South. The Irish and Gaelic languages are hidden strands of both African- and Irish- American Vernacular. Ya’ tuig (pron. dig, understand, comprehend)? Tuig é nó ná, (pron. dig ay no naa, understand it or not), according to both enumerations of the 1870 U.S. Federal census, 12% of the African-American community in New York City was Irish-African-American.

Despite all the academic “whiteness” bunkum today, at the dawning of the Gilded Age, in just a single New York City ward, there were hundreds of Irish-African-American families crammed together in the tenements and rookeries of Laurens (W. Broadway), Thompson, Sullivan, and Spring streets, in what is the swank (somhaoineach, pron. su’wainek, wealthy) neighborhood of Soho in 2006.

In America the word bunkum has been slowly replaced by the abbreviated “bunk.” But in modern Ireland, the word bunkum is still popular, as demonstrated by the headline of this recent column by the Irish journalist Jude Collins in the Daily Ireland newspaper.

Enough ‘one-side-is-as- bad-as-the-other’ bunkum
by Jude Collins

Is there a comparable record of repeated and murderous Catholic attacks on Protestant people and Protestant property in the Ballymena area in recent years? If there is, it’s been oddly under-reported… The fact that this both-sides bunkum is offered by the great and the good, and the media, under the guise of balance and fairness, makes it all the more sickening. (Daily Ireland, 11/05/2006, front page.)

“Pearl (stiffly): De old Irish bunk, huh?” (O’Neill, The Iceman Cometh, 636)

“Yank: You’re de bunk. Yuh ain’t got no noive, get me? Yuh’re yellow, dat’s what.” (O’Neill, The Hairy Ape, 636)

“Belle (angrily): Aw, can it! Give us a rest from that bunk!” (O’Neill, Ah Wilderness, 73)

Let’s hope we can put to rest the bunk about bunkum. Though shaggy-dog tales (like academic bunkum) have more lives than a cat.

DANIEL CASSIDY is founder and co-director of An Léann Éireannach, the Irish Studies Program, at New College of California in San Francisco. Cassidy is an award-winning filmmaker and musician. His research on the Irish language influence on American vernacular and slang has been published in the New York Observer (“Decoding the Gangs of New York”), Ireland’s Hot Press magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, and Lá, the Irish-language newspaper.

His book, The Secret Language of the Crossroad: How the Irish Invented Slang, will be published by CounterPunch Books in Spring 2007. Cassidy was born in Brooklyn and lives with his wife Clare in San Francisco. He can be reached at DanCas1@aol.com





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Daniel Cassidy is the author of How the Irish Invented Slang: the Secret Language of the Crossroads, CounterPunch/AK Press., 2007.

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