by Piet Coetzer

Understanding CAR involvement

A case of bunkum rather than clear-cut arguments

Speaking bunkum.jpg

It is, even now, not quite clear if all members of the South African National defence force (SANDF) have left the Central African Republic (CAR) after the embarrassing outcome of the military mission to that country. It is cut and dried we are heading back to that part of the continent on another mission but how cut and dried is cut and dry really? 

With all the bunkum we were exposed to from politicians in the wake of the CAR affair, South Africans would do well to take note that not even the roots of the expression “cut and dried” are all that clear cut.

There are at least five theories as to the origins of the expression “cut and dry”, which was first recorded in writing in 1710.

One theory has it that the expression comes from the practice of cutting and drying herbs for sale as an alternative to fresh herbs that would go off if  they were not used immediately. 

Then, there are those who ascribe the origin of the expression to the tobacco industry. Tobacco had to be cut and dried before stuffing it in your pipe or rolling a cigarette. Although judged by some of the bunkum spoken about the CAR affair, one might suspect that some of those who had something to say, smoked something other than just tobacco.

The next two theories come form the world of timber or lumber. In the first instance the argument goes that the metaphor “cut and dried” derived from the fact that timber could only be sold and become usable and dependable lumber after it has been cut to a standard size and then dried in the open air or in a kiln.

As anyone who has ever tried to pack a fireplace or a braai fire with green wood would know, if you do not want to end up with watery eyes, burning nose and  / or  a coughing fit, it is best done with wood cut to proper size and well dried.

Then, lastly, there are those who claim that it originated from the practice, before the days of fridges, during the long journeys by ox wagon  as a way of preserving raw meat by cutting and drying it. That is how South African biltong and American jerky was made.


A lot of what has been said by politicians about what has happened with the SANDF  mission in the CAR can be termed 'clap-trap'. The term comes from 18th century theatre slang as a description of dialogue used purely for the purpose of soliciting some applause without adding anything substantial.

By the 19th century, clap-trap had broadened from meaning “cheap, showy language” to its current meaning of “nonsense, silly rubbish”.

But I advisedly chose the term 'bunkum' as the best term to describe some of the proclamations on the CAR affair.

My reason was that many of them were, to use the almost forgotten expression, “enough to vex an angel”. The word 'vex' dates back to the Middle English word 'vixen” via the Old French veer from the original Latin vexāre, meaning to “irritate, annoy, provoke, jolt or harass”.

The term, he or she is just talking bunkum, was attractive for the synonyms that most dictionaries give for it, being the less polite alternative for horse or dog droppings.

The expression itself is an Americanism, meaning empty talk or nonsense, dating back to an 1820 speech by congressman Felix Walker. Asked why he was making a long irrelevant speech during an important debate, he responded that it was “for Buncombe”, in reference to his constituents in Buncombe County in North Caroline.

It is not known whether congressman Walker was ever re-elected by the people of Buncombe, but the name of their county instantly came to mean nonsensical talk.


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