Sunday, 15 November 2009

Bunking and Debunking

It is vital that you know that debunking has nothing to do with bunk beds. It's connected to bunk as a contraction of bunkum or rubbish. Bunkum, as any fule kno, derives from Buncombe County, North Carolina, whose representative in Congress made a particularly stupid speech in 1820 "for Buncombe". It was such an inane oration that the word bunkum, with a K, has now spread around the world. Buncombe, North Carolina, was named after Edward Buncombe who fell down stairs and died. Edward Buncombe must have been a descendant of Richard de Bounecombe of Somerset (1327), whose name meant "dweller in the reed valley" from the Anglo Saxon bune meaning reed and cumb or coomb meaning valley. Coomb relates to cwm in Welsh and is one of the very few words that the Anglo Saxons took from Celtic languages.

The origin of bunk bed is unknown.

All of which is utterly irrelevant to what this post was meant to be about.

Michael Flanders once said, "The purpose of satire, it has been rightly said, is to strip off the veneer of comforting illusion and cosy half-truth. And our job, as I see it, is to put it back again."

So in the interests of continuing his good work:

Kangaroo does not mean 'I don't understand' in aboriginal. This is a myth.

Yucatan does not mean 'I don't understand' in Mayan. This too is a myth, a deliberate untruth spread by Cortes to discredit a province-naming rival. It means "place of richness" in nahuatl.

However, before you tearfully decide that there is No Fun in etymology anymore, there is in Madagascar a kind of lemur known to science as the indri. Indri, in the native tongue, means Look at that!

The reason, as you have no doubt already guessed (aren't you clever?), is that a naturalist called Pierre Sonnerat was wandering happily through the jungle naming things (like Adam) when his guide shouted "Look at that!"

Out came the notebook and it has been the indri ever since.

This is not, alas, a useful titbit of information for cocktail parties as nobody else will have heard of the indri. But it is useful to know that something from Madagascar is not Madagascan but Malagasy, just as something from Monaco is not Monacan or Monte Carlan but Monegasque. So it's the Monegasque Grand Prix.

Look at that!


  1. What makes you say that "something from Madagascar is not Madagascan but Malagasy"? I've heard both used as an adjective to describe things from Madagascar, and both appear in my dictionary.

  2. Because Malagasy is far more fun.

  3. What a load of bunkum! I loved it! :)