On bunkum: a word with Le Carré
Last week I allowed myself the guilty pleasure of reading nothing but spy novels while at the cottage. I had wanted to read a number of John le Carré's books, and loaded my Kindle for the trip.
First, a word on Le Carré. I really love his writing. Here are one-hundred pound plots dolled out a teaspoon at a time, and as smooth as honey. His diction, characterization, and the flow of his words is so enjoyable. I was so enthralled I even read books of his for which I've seen the movie--Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy is a great film, and an even better book. I'm still burning through the Karla trilogy, and would highly, highly recommend you pick up a Le Carré or 4. Start with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.
Now, a word from Le Carré. The other night I was reading and had to pause at a critical point in the narrative in order to do some etymology. Here's the sentence:
I said it sounded bunkum, and rang off...
It sounded bunkum. I had to consult the OED. Surely he meant what I would more likely expect to read "bunk," but that he didn't, I had to know more. It turns out that bunkum comes from Buncombe, the name of a county in North Carolina. It was used in a passionate speech by a member of the US House of Representatives in 1820, and was done in order to curry favour with its voters. As a result of the grandstanding it came to represent empty political talk, and later, for any and all empty talk, more commonly, bunk.
Today bunk is used more often than bunkum, which is probably why I've never encountered it until now. You can see its historic rise and fall in this Google NGram analysis: