The word bromide was at first the name of a sedative that physicians used in the treatment of epilepsy, sea sickness and insomnia; but in the early twentieth century its reference was extended to soporific bores and their stupefying conversation. The implication was that subjection to the bromides of a bromidic man (or woman) was very much like chemical sedation, since it induced the same feeling of numbness, lassitude, and fuddled mind.
As one student of the metaphorically bromidic explained, the essence of bromidic conversation is that it is both trite and predictable, and that it therefore lacks the novelty and surprise that are the soul of sparkling conversation.* People are excited by novelty, whether in content or style, and they express their excitement in laughter, gesticulation and an eager stance. But they are stupefied when they hear what everyone already knows expressed in words everyone has already heard, and they express their stupor with a slouch, a grunt and a glassy eye.
Look at any communique that pulses through the nerves of a modern bureaucracy, and you will find that it is composed of jargon, bromides, or a barbarous pidgin of the two. This is why I find almost all memoranda anesthetizing when they are not baffling, and it is one reason bureaucrats say so little in so very many words. For instance, here is a bromide that arrived just yesterday from our university president.
“We are strongest as an institution when everyone is empowered and motivated to follow their passions and achieve their goals.”
I should begin by saying that a remark can be trite without being true, since there are commonplace falsehoods just as there are commonplace truths. And this statement is most certainly not true. Were it true, an institution would be strongest when it urged its most choleric employees to strike their coworkers when in a passionate rage, and perhaps even “empowered” these hotheads with stout shillelaghs.
But I have heard this false sentiment a thousand times. And what is more, my surprise at finding it in a message from a college president is akin to my surprise at finding dirty dishes in my sink or whiskers on my face. The line is, therefore, both trite and predictable, and thus bromidic in both character and effect.
College presidents say this sort of thing automatically, which is to say with the lively conviction of an automaton.
Careless usage is the hallmark of automatic expression. As I noted above, the word “everyone” cannot possibly mean everyone; and every educated man should wince when he hears a college president tell us to follow our “passions.” Educated men will remember that Plato taught us to mistrust our passions, called them “furious and savage masters,” and advised us to be guided by our reason.
Note also the fashionable and grating usage of the word “empower.” Until quite recently, a government agency was “empowered” by the legislation that defined the scope and limits of its powers. The sanitation district was, for instance, empowered to charge a sewer tax; the school district was empowered to select textbooks and hire teachers; the courts were empowered to send convicts to prison. The word had nothing to do with public subsidies to private individuals who are laboring under a violent desire (passion) to do this, that, or the other thing.
Bromides are very often mixed with bunkum, and bunkum is not simply nonsense. As you may know, the word bunkum (and bunk) entered our vocabulary in 1820, when Felix Walker, a congressman from North Carolina, rose in the House and delivered an irrelevant speech that he hoped would impress his constituents back in Buncombe County. The irrelevance of Walker’s speech was particularly striking, and unwelcome, because he chose to deliver it in the midst of the heated debate leading up to the Missouri Compromise. In one version of the story, some irritated congressmen had begun to leave the chamber when Walker told those who remained that they might leave as well, since he “was only speaking for Buncombe.”**
Politicians thereafter called any speech given to placate or appease some group of voters “a speech for Buncombe.” *** Like Congressman Walker, the speechifying politician might be standing on the floor of the House, and might appear to be addressing his fellow legislators, but his actual audience was folks back home who would be pleased to read in their newspapers that such a speech was given. They would be pleased, and inclined to vote for the politician in the next election, because his “speech for Buncombe” showed the people of Buncombe County that his heart was in the right place.
Everyone knows that a politician will say that his heart is in whatever place a majority of the voters say they would like it to be. Thus, the word bunkum came to imply insincerity, and what one writer called “a pretended enthusiasm.”† This remark appears in a book on the English Parliament, to which the phrase and practice of “speeches for Buncombe” spread by the late nineteenth century. Under the democratic pressure of wider suffrage, Ministers to Parliament found themselves making more and more “speeches for Buncombe,” more and more verbal gestures to persuade this or that block of voters that their hearts were in the right place.
Virtue-signaling is another name for bunkum, since the aim in virtue-signaling and bunkum is to win the approval of people who already agree with what the virtue signaler says. He may appear to be addressing a college commencement, or a meeting of shareholders, or the public at large, but his words are actually for some metaphorical Buncombe County. Buncombe county is his tribe, and his bunkum is just an elaborate gesture of tribal identification.
If modern virtue-signalers were as honest as Congressman Walker, they would let their ostensible audience slip out for a quick one at the bar, assuring them that they “were only speaking for Buncombe.”
Buncombe thrives in a democratic society because ruin awaits any man or institution whose heart is not loudly professed to be in exactly the right place. Just as Felix Walker’s irrelevant “speech for Buncombe” obtruded on the debate leading up to the Missouri Compromise, so all sorts of seemingly irrelevant, virtue-signaling verbal gestures obtrude on things as seemingly simple as an advertisement for footwear or a memorandum to the faculty and staff.
Here, for instance, is a line of pure bunkum from the memorandum previously quoted.
“I encourage every campus member to make it a priority to learn more about diversity and inclusion efforts on campus, find opportunities to make a difference, and step out of your comfort zone to learn about and appreciate the experiences, struggles and triumphs of people who are different than you.”
I presume that there are already some“campus members” who know just about all there is to know “about diversity and inclusion efforts on campus,” who are doing everything they can think of to “make a difference,” and who like nothing better than to hear about “the experiences, struggles and triumphs” of people unlike themselves. This is the “Buncombe County” for whom these words were written.
The rest of us are just props in the show.
*) Gelett Burgess, Are You a Bromide?(1913), p. 21.
**) F. A. Sondly, Ashville and Buncombe County(1922), p. 64.
***) Thomas Hart Benton, Speech on the Case of McLeod, in Senate, Monday, June 14, 1841(1841), p. 5.
†) J. L. M. Curry, William Ewart Gladstone(1891), p. 76.