July 06, 2006

The bunkum of "The Bunkum of Bunkum"?

Recently, David Donnell sent me a link to Daniel Cassidy's exercise in creative etymology, "How the Irish invented Slang: The Bunkum of Bunkum (for Dizzy Gillespie)" counterpunch, July 1-2, 2006. Cassidy hopes "we can put to rest the bunk about bunkum", by which he means to debunk the origin given in the OED and elsewhere for the word bunkum:

[f. Buncombe, name of a county in N. Carolina, U.S. The use of the word originated near the close of the debate on the ‘Missouri Question’ in the 16th congress, when the member from this district rose to speak, while the house was impatiently calling for the ‘Question’. Several members gathered round him, begging him to desist; he persevered, however, for a while, declaring that the people of his district expected it, and that he was bound to make a speech for Buncombe. (See Bartlett, Amer. Dict.)]

According to Cassidy's alternative history, bunkum is an "Irish and Scots-Gaelic word" derived as follows:

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."

Cassidy suggests that this is only one of many arguments for a systematic campaign of etymological revisionism in favor of borrowings from Gaelic, such as the derivation of swank from somhaoineach, and he connects this project to the influence of African-American Gaelic speakers. I asked Jim McCloskey whether Cassidy's riff is linguistically plausible, and he responded:

No, this is very fanciful, I think. `Buanchumadh' is, I suppose, a morphologically possible word, but it's not a word I've ever come across and it's not in any of the dictionaries that I have to hand (three). I'm reasonably sure that the apparent dictionary entry at the start of the piece:

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

is fictional; it's not, at any rate, in any of the standard dictionaries, and he gives no other reference to check.

Further: if this were an actual word of the language, it would mean something like `perpetual composing'. It's a long way from that to a sense close to that of English `story'.

This is too bad, since I think that there is lots of interesting territory to be explored (linguistic and other) having to do with connections between people of African descent and people of Irish descent in the New World---especially in the Caribbean, where lots of Irish people were sold into slavery after the clearances of the mid 17th century. Stuart Davis has some interesting work in this area, though that has to do with influences on southern Black English from Irish forms of English (not from Irish).

And I would bet you almost anything that that is where you'll find linguistic influences---from Irish English rather than from Irish.

For the other suggested borrowing: the idea that `swank' comes from `somhaoineach' seems very, very dubious. This is a real word (meaning `valuable' or `profitable') but it's also very, very obscure, and it's hard for me to imagine that it would have been one of the words brought to this country by Irish-speaking migrants or that it would have survived in the linguistic melting pot (I've never heard it used in speech, as far as I can recall; I know it only from old law texts). In any case, isn't `swank' well established in English English?

The OED says that it's "a midl. and s.w. dial. word" that is "ultimately related to OHG. MHG. swanc swinging motion", with citations like these:

1809 BATCHELOR Anal. Eng. Lang. 144 (Bedfordshire dialect) Swangk, to strut.
1848 EVANS Leic. Words & Phrases s.v., I met him swanking along the road, ever so genteel.

I suspect that if Cassidy had evidence that somhaoineach was used by Irish or Scots Gaelic speakers in 18th- or 19th-century America, he would have cited it. Though in fairness, there may not be a lot of documentary evidence available. The problem is that any random pair of languages have many random examples of similarly-sounding words and phrases with vaguely connected meanings, especially if you allow obscure words and unexpected phrases, and so it's all too easy to make a case on such grounds for an unexpectedly large role for Gaelic, or Russian, or Bambara, or Greek, in the history of English.

I can remember, when I was child, listening to an aged relative's fanciful stories about how this and that aspect of American culture or vocabulary was originally Russian. I guess that this is a common expression of ethnic pride, simultaneously promoting and subverting assimilation. It's famously lampooned in the character of Gus Portokalos in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding:

"Give me a word, any word, and I show you that the root of that word is Greek."
"Kimono, kimono, kimono. Ha! Of course! Kimono is come from the Greek word himona, is mean winter. So, what do you wear in the wintertime to stay warm? A robe. You see: robe, kimono. There you go!"
"The root of the word Miller come from a Greek word, millah, meaning apple, so there you go. And our name, Portokalos, is come from the word meaning orange. So today here, we have, apples and oranges. We all different now, but in the end, we're all fruit."

[Update: Grant Barrett is less kind but also more experienced.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 6, 2006 08:12 AM