Though these days the term wordmonger refers to "a writer or speaker who uses language pretentiously or carelessly," please join me in proposing a new meaning. A fishmonger appreciates and promotes fish, therefore, a wordmonger does the same for words.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bunk & its buddies

Bunk & its Buddies

English is rife with colorful terms referring to irrelevant, useless, or empty words. As we ramp up to ramping up to elections, let’s celebrate a few of them.

Bunk appeared in American English about 1900 as a shortened form of bunkum, meaning nonsense. By most accounts the term was born in the US House of Representatives when North Carolina Representative Felix Walker threw in his two cents regarding Missouri’s statehood in relation to the Mason-Dixon Line. He needed to say something that would appear in the papers back home in Buncombe, so he unabashedly made a  "long, dull, irrelevant speech." In time, Buncombe shifted to bunkum, which got shortened to bunk.

Blatherskite, was born during the American Revolution, & refers to both the words spoken by a talkative, nonsensical person & the person him/herself. It comes of blather, meaning to babble. Blather is a Scottish term derived from an Old Norse word meaning to wag the tongue, added to skite, meaning a contemptible individual. We see a related ending in the word cheapskate, & a related beginning in the term blithering idiot. Skite also originated in Old Norse, from a word meaning to shoot, which apparently is what the Old Norse thought should be done with blatherers.

Bosh came to English in the 1830s from Turkish. Its literal Turkish meaning of empty, applies in English only to meaningless speech or writing.

Claptrap appeared in the 1730s & meant a stage trick to catch applause. Since then we’ve lost the applause-inducing element of the term & it simply means cheap, nonsensical or pretentious language.

There are so many great synonyms for bunk, blatherskite, bosh & claptrap. Followers, what empty-word words would you add to the list?

My thanks go out to this week’s sources,,  Hugh Rawson’s Wicked Words & the OED.


  1. Fascinating as usual, Mr. Monger. I had no idea that "claptrap" once meant exactly what it sounds like. And the derivation of bunk is so perfect--it came from Congress! I'm wondering if "skite", meaning contemptible, is also related to an all-purpose Anglo-Saxon word we use today, which has a more polite version: "scat". I suppose under certain circumstances "scat" can be "shot" but I don't suppose that's something anybody wants to hear about unless they're in the Pepto-Bismol business. And it may all be bosh.

    Thanks for another fun and enlightening post!

  2. Shall we add "numbskull" - an empty-headed idiot who persists in blathering his bosh. Perhaps it was someone's skite that numbed said pate? However it happened, the end result is the same: a bunkum-monger blithering his claptrap to the detriment of our poor ears...

  3. Susan & Anne,
    Tahnks for popping by. Anne, I can't find a connection between skite & the synonym for scat, though I like the idea that they might be connected. Susan, I'll do my best not to move into the realm of bunkum-mongering.