One step ahead of the Sheriff.

Dear Word Detective:  It’s an old expression, but periodically we still see the expression “done a bunk,” a meaning generally attached to a low life who runs out on a spouse, girl friend, or employer, not infrequently with cash or other loot. We’ve seen “bunk” as it refers to trash, falsehoods, and beds, but where do we get the reference to fast-fading ne’er-do-wells? — Oldusedcop.

That’s a great question, evocative of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, The Maltese Falcon and the whole world of “noir” detective novels and films. Unfortunately, as soon as I wrote that sentence I began to worry about Hollywood’s penchant for ruining great films with tawdry and stupid remakes. I’m praying that the plots of those stories are simply too complicated and subtle to hold the studios’ attention, because I don’t think I could survive even hearing of Vince Vaughn playing Sam Spade (probably with Lady Gaga in Mary Astor’s role).

There are actually several “bunks” in English, the oldest of which is “bunk” meaning a sleeping berth aboard a ship or train or, more generally, any bed, especially when two or more are arranged in a tier. This “bunk” dates back to the mid-1700s and is of uncertain origin, but it may have Scandinavian roots and is probably related to “bunker.”

While the roots of that bed “bunk” are murky, the precise origin of “bunk” meaning “nonsense” or “falsehoods” is refreshingly certain. This “bunk” is short for “bunkum,” a simplified spelling of “Buncombe,” a county in North Carolina. Back in 1820, a certain Representative Felix Walker, whose district happened to include Buncombe County, rose on the floor of the US House of Representatives to address the debate of the day, the famous Missouri Compromise, which dealt with slavery in states wishing to join the Union. But as Walker began to speak, it became clear that what he was saying had nothing to do with the issue at hand and was, in fact, irrelevant nonsense. Worse yet, he refused to shut up. Challenged by his colleagues, Walker replied that his constituents expected him to “make a speech for Buncombe,” and started yammering again. Bingo, “buncombe,” later “bunkum” and simply “bunk,” became national shorthand for “nonsense.”

It’s probable that “to do a bunk,” meaning “to run away” since around 1870, comes at least in part from “bunk” in the sense of “nonsense,” especially in an extended use of “bunk” to mean “trickery, dishonesty.” It’s also probable, however, that “to bunk” meaning “to escape, elude,” was strongly influenced by “bunco,” which since the 1870s has been used to mean “a swindle or con, especially one done via dice or playing cards.” The term “bunco” comes from the Spanish “banca,” a card game similar to “monte,” best known in the form “three-card monte,” a swindle (similar to the “shell game”) still played on unsuspecting marks on the streets of New York and other large cities. While “bunco” originally referred to a card swindle, the term quickly came to cover any sort of confidence game or racket, and many urban police departments used to maintain a “bunco squad” whose target was swindlers and con men in general.

So “bunk” meaning “to escape, elude, run away” (“The keeper tried to catch him, but the bad boy did a bunk,” 1870) may well have had two sources, both embodying the sense of dishonesty that “bunk” in this sense implies.

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