Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Welcome to Bunkum Country

The airwaves pulsate with it; TV stations live on it and most people indulge in it to a certain extent, and it is of course because of this that there is a word in the English language to denote it: bunkum- an almost onomatopoeic term to describe meaningless, empty, ridiculous conversation peppered with lies and invention, or if you permit the bombast, it encapsulates what one might be tempted to call mendacious confabulation. If you are a tad puzzled by this beautifully expressive word confabulation, here are some synonyms: conversation, interlocution; collocution, colloquy, converse, confabulation, talk, discourse, verbal intercourse; oral communication, commerce; dialogue, duologue, trialogue. So now you get the picture, you are tempted to say “more matter with less art”, get to the point! Well, you might be surprised to learn that bunkum is derived from our dear old Gaeilge: buan cumadh. Buan means long-lasting, enduring, and cumadh denotes something made up, invented, a tale or unlikely story. According to the standard etymology of this word, it refers to a congress man in Buncombe county USA, who spoke endlessly on a particular bill while his fellow congressmen waited impatiently to vote. But Daniel Cassidy-whose book ‘How the Irish invented Slang’, I have already written about- gives an interesting dissection of bunkum. According to Cassidy, Buncombe county and North Carolina in general, had a strong, historic Scots-Gaelic and Irish-speaking community, which lasted until the 20th century. I was intrigued to read that the Jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie’s family were African-American Gaelic speakers from North Carolina and Alabama . Apparently, the racial mix of Irish and African-Americans was quite substantial, particularly in New York . The Irish-American playwright Eugene O’ Neill uses the term ‘bunk’ in some of his plays, which is an abbreviated version of the word in question. What fascinates me about Cassidy’s audacious interpretation is the untold history of these Irish and African-American communities, where Gaelic, due to the preponderance of Irish immigration, became the lingua franca.

I’m still not sure if Cassidy’s explanation is cogent, however. Could it be due to the fact that the infamous gift of the gab associated with the Irish, influenced the local nomenclature? Unlikely. Unless, of course, someone of stature in the locality, himself a Gaelgeoir, decided that as there was so much chatter and nonsense proliferating in the area, it should be called just that! I couldn’t imagine a more appropriate term for modern Ireland, where thousands of vacuous people converse daily about their petty concerns: houses at home and abroad; new cars, shopping, reality TV, soap operas, celebrities, holidays in the sun or the astonishing effectiveness of fake tan. The kind of people who listen to Red FM or Today FM, sending texts about nothing, polluting the airwaves with their silly chatter, a nation of idiotic talkers with nothing to say. Yes indeed, fáilte roimh Éireann or Bunkum Country.

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