Q&A: The origin of ‘debunk’

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, it's a load of bunk…

Q: Hi AWC, if we’re disproving something, why do we say “debunk”? Isn’t that what children do when they hop out of bed?

A: Haha, well it’s true that a “bunk” is a type of bed – originally named in the 1750s as a sleeping berth on a ship, then later on a train. It was likely a shortened form of the word “bunker”.

Q: That place where you hide from nuclear attacks?

A: Okay, yes, that “dug-out fortification” is a relatively recent meaning, from around World War I, but it had an earlier meaning.

Q: Sand traps on a golf course?

A: Yes, that was also earlier, around the 1820s, but still not the original meaning.

Q: Okay, just tell me.

A: The original “bunker” comes from a Scottish word for seat or bench. That’s effectively what a bunk bed was – a flat bench to sleep on.

Q: Alright, now that we know that. How does it relate to “debunking” something?

A: Oh, it doesn’t.

Q: What??

A: No, that’s an entirely different meaning of “bunk”.

Q: I hate you.

A: Hey, YOU brought up the bed thing, not us. Anyway, the bunk that we ARE trying to remove when we “debunk” something is short for “bunkum” and became widespread in English around 1900. 

Q: Where did it come from?

A: We can actually get rather specific here. It seems to have stemmed from a North Carolina county.

Q: How very random. Tell me more!

A: It seems that a political representative of this county – a man named Felix Walker – gave a particular “long, dull, irrelevant speech” in the US Congress back in 1820. When asked to stop, he said that the reason for going on and one was to make it memorable enough so as to appear in the newspapers in his home county of “Buncombe”. He reportedly stated that he therefore was not speaking to the House, “but to Buncombe”. Not long after, it became American slang for “nonsense” – with the spelling changed to protect the innocent.

Q: Wow, that whole origin story sounds like bunkum!

A: And yet it’s true. The word “bunkum” even survives to this day – the Macquarie Dictionary listing it as “insincere talk; claptrap; humbug.”

Q: Oh, that’s another funny one – “humbug”. Let me guess, a South Dakota district?

A: Haha, no. The origins of that word have been lost to the mists of time, but we DO know that it started as popular slang at Oxford and Cambridge universities in the mid-1700s.

Q: Okay, so to “debunk” is to remove the bunkum, yeah?

A: That’s right, and Merriam-Webster Dictionary asserts that it has been in use since the 1920s. It appears to have been first used by US novelist William Woodward in his 1923 bestselling book. Can you guess what that book was called?

Q: ‘Boring politicians of the 19th Century’?

A: No. It was simply titled Bunk. And his definition of debunking was ‘to take the bunk out of things”

Q: Okay, that makes sense too.

A: Today, the dictionary definition has been chiselled down somewhat to: “strip off false sentiment” or “expose the falseness of”.

Q: So it’s the same as disproving something, yeah?

A: It’s a little harsher than that. Merriam-Webster asserts that the important difference with debunking something is that you’re not simply proving something as untrue but exposing that it was a SHAM – something that is intentionally meant to deceive. 

Q: Sham-ful!

A: The dictionary goes on to state that “One can simply disprove a myth, but if it is debunked, the implication is that the myth was a grossly exaggerated or foolish claim.”

Q: I guess if “bunkum” is nonsense, then that fits.

A: It should be noted that Britain was initially appalled at the invention of such a word. One 1935 letter to the editor stated: “The origin of to debunk is doubtless the same as that of American jargon in general — the inability of an ill-educated and unintelligent democracy to assimilate long words. Its intrusion in our own tongue is due partly to the odious novelty of the word itself, and partly to the prevailing fear that to write exact English nowadays is to be put down as a pedant and a prig.”

Q: You’d think they would have had better things to do with their time in the 1930s like lining up for food or worrying about that German chap with the little moustache.

A: It would seem not.

Q: So to recap, “debunk” has nothing to do with golf or beds or bomb shelters – and is instead a verb that seeks to destroy all “bunkum” or nonsense, which began with a talkative US politician.

A: That’s right. Until someone comes along and debunks THAT story of course…

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